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Friday, April 23, 2010

More on Hlavac, Miles cases

Posted by on Fri, Apr 23, 2010 at 12:57 PM

In a post earlier this week, I raised some questions about two cases involving accusations of police misconduct: the (since dismissed) charges of domestic abuse against Pittsburgh police Sergeant Eugene Hlavac, and the investigation into the conduct of officers involved in the Jordan Miles case.

I noted that while Mayor Luke Ravenstahl acted speedily in the Hlavac matter -- firing him weeks after the allegations were made -- an investigation into the Miles incident has been going on for more than three months.

Others have noted the disparity as well. On April 19, city councilor Patrick Dowd sent a letter to the mayor, asking about the hold-up in the Miles case. Ravenstahl had previously promised a quick investigation of the Miles incident, with an internal police investigation to be completed by the end of February. 

In response to that letter, city solicitior Daniel Regan informed Dowd and the rest of council that the city investigation is essentially in limbo

[T]he investigation being performed by the Office of Municipal Investigations (OMI) is not complete and remains open. Since the investigation began there have been developments that have caused OMI to keep the investigation open. One such development has been the initiation of a federal investigation. The federal investigation may reveal additional or new evidence that would only benefit the OMI investigation ...

The subsequent developments call for the City to be extremely prudent ... It is important that the City act in [a] manner that respects the integrity of the federal investigation ... Haste will not properly serve the interests of any of the parties involved.

The letter goes on to note that when an OMI investigation is concluded, the city's contract with police requires that a decision about discipline be made within 120 days. It's possible, Regan's letter points out, that a federal investigation would turn up additional information that might change the nature of the discipline sought -- for better or worse. Thus, "Principles of fairness -- to the officers, Mr. Miles, the City and the public -- require that the investigation remain open." 

Sounds reasonable enough: I pointed out the sensitivity of these issues in my earlier post. Even so, a couple things bear noting about these assertions.

First, city officials previously insisted that the city's internal investigation did not depend on any external review:

A federal grand jury is hearing the case and an FBI probe continues, both separate from the city's investigation ... [FBI] Agents have said theirs is independent of other investigations, and city officials have said the OMI review does not depend on the outcome of any other pending investigation.

And really, it's a bit disturbing to think the city's investigation would depend on what the FBI is up to.

When there are charges of misconduct made against police officers, after all, we're supposed to trust that the city's internal-review procedures can investigate fairly and thoroughly. Granted, the feds have a lot more resources. But to say, as Regan does, that the feds "may reveal additional or new evidence" is a lot like saying, "Hey, our guys might be missing something really important."

Meanwhile, Eugene Hlavac is no doubt going to be very interested  in Regan's assertoin that "Haste will not properly serve the interests of any of the parties involved." 

Again: Hlavac was canned less than a month after the allegations against him surfaced. And he was cleared in a criminal court about three months after that. We have no idea when the federal investigation of these officers will be complete, but it doesn't seem likely to move any faster than the criminal case against Hlavac did. And hey -- isn't it possible that a criminal proceeding against Hlavac could reveal information missed by the city's internal investigators? 

Sure looks that way. I'm not carrying water for Hlavac -- he's reportedly treated our citizens review board with contempt during a hearing on other allegations. But he too deserves justice. And in a statement explaining his decision to fire Hlavac, Ravenstahl made the case sound open-and-shut. But obviously that isn't how the judge saw it. 

For that matter, it wasn't how Jeanne Clark, head of the local National Organization for Women chapter and a frequent critic of Ravenstahl, saw it either. Clark was at the preliminary hearing for Hlavac, and even then, she says, "The DA's case seemed very weak to me." The eyewitness testimony -- which judge Thomas Flaherty cited as a reason for dismisisng the charges -- was considerably less damning than Ravenstahl's letter suggested.

What next? "I do think we're likely to see Hlavac back on the force," Clark says. "Under the law, the administration is very weak in these arbitration proceedings." And a not-guilty verdict knocks the pins out from under the stated reasons Ravensathl gave for Hlavac's termination. 

Of course, it's possible that, if this matter goes to arbitration, the city may provide other grounds for termination. Hlavac has faced discipline before, after all. But if such grounds exist, Ravenstahl has said nothing about them, and no one I've spoken to could point me toward them either. 

In any case, Clark says that with respect to Hlavac, "There's no role for us anymore." While women's groups still support Hlavac's accuser, whether he returns to the force or not is "not something that's within my ability to do anything about."

On the bright side, Clark says, "No matter what happens with him, I think this has changed the culture here." The city is near to passing a domestic-violence policy that affects all city employees, she points out, and "People are now seeing domestic violence as a crime of power -- not one of passion or love."

I just wish I felt like there was a happy ending in store for the Miles situation. I've been pretty critical of Ravenstahl on this stuff, and I think the decision to promote Hlavac in 2007 was ... ill-advised. But at this point, there's no easy way out of this. Moving too quickly risks bad outcomes, but so does not moving quickly enough. The only thing you're sure of is that no matter what you do, someone is going to be furious.  

Right now, we've got a community demanding answers -- with no sense of when they will be forthcoming. And we've got city police officers who are in limbo, living under a cloud -- with no sense of when that uncertainty will be over either.

What could be worse than such uncertainty over the outcome? Maybe the outcome itself. 

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