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Friday, September 10, 2010

In Miles case, justice delayed is problem denied

Posted By on Fri, Sep 10, 2010 at 8:21 AM

Jordan Miles, the Homewood student left battered from an encounter with three Pittsburgh police officers in January, has started college now. Theoretically, he could graduate before we ever know what will happen to the police involved. 

Or not. On August 27, KDKA's Marty Griffin reported that the FBI's investigation of the incident "is apparently over ... Sources tell the KDKA Investigators right now the Justice Department has no intention of pursuing charges against the three officers." According to Griffin, "attorneys representing the family" said Justice Department officials told them "We are declining the case involving Jordan" because "It's three against one."

The following day, the Tribune-Review came out with an account that seemed to controvert Griffin's story:

A federal civil rights investigation into three Pittsburgh officers accused of beating a Homewood teenager remains open despite a flurry of rumors that brought a rebuke from the police chief this week ...

"He's wrong. I'm telling you he's wrong," [a family attorney] said of a KDKA reporter.

A spokesperson for the Justice Department in Washington said the civil rights case remains open, but declined to comment further.

City officials sought to squelch speculation that the investigation is finished.

"Those rumors need to cease," police Chief Nate Harper said in an e-mail message from spokeswoman Diane Richard.

I sort of like how the Trib account can't bring itself to even mention Griffin's name. But unbowed, the inimitable Griffin returned Aug. 30 with a report reiterating that, while the family had filed a civil suit, the police would not be charged in a federal criminal case. What's more, Griffin added, "sources indicated the three Pittsburgh police officers will be brought back to full-time duty as soon as possible."

Well, that may or may not be very soon: Police spokesperson Diane Richard told me that as of yesterday, the agency had not yet received any notification from the Justice Department that the case had been closed. Such notification would be necessary, she added, before the city would even act on a request to return the officers to duty. But she had no indication about when, or if, such notification would be forthcoming.

Such word could come in a few days, as Griffin suggests. Conversely, the feds are not obliged to act for another several years: Under federal law, there's a five-year statute of limitations on criminal civil rights violations.

But on the central issue, Griffin and the Trib's dispatch agree: By all accounts, federal officials did tell the family that this matter boils down to a he-said/they said situation. (Echoing Griffin's report, Miles' attorney told the paper that the feds "were reticent about moving ahead because of the credibility about one boy against three officers.") If that's true, it suggests that they've found no other evidence to corroborate one side or the other. And if they haven't found such evidence by now, they're probably not going to.

So unless the family members are really confused, there's not gonna be any federal criminal charges here. The only question is when the feds are going to make that official.

What's notable about the Trib account, in fact, is that you have the city's police chief agreeing with the attorney suing his officers. Both men took pains to insist that the police are still under investigation. How often do you see that happen?

In a way it's not surprising. Because the day the feds do officially drop the case is the day Harper's headaches really begin.

The status quo has a pricetag, of course. As we've previously reported, it's costing thousands of dollars a month to keep the officers involved on administrative leave, pending resolution of the investigation. City taxpayers, in fact, are actually shelling out for overtime the officers would have been earning had they still been on active duty. It gives new meaning to the phrase "working hard hardly working." 

So what is the city buying with all that money? Time, if nothing else.

First, the FBI investigation may not be the last word in investigating this case. The city's Citizens Police Review Board, for example, has been unable to investigate the matter, because as its bylaws clearly state,

Should the Review Board or its staff learn at any time that the District Attorney, the State Attorney General's office or the Department of Justice has initiated criminal proceedings against a Subject Officer, the Review Board shall defer any preliminary inquiry and/or investigation until such criminal proceedings have been withdrawn or concluded.

Even the police department's internal review of the officers is on hold, pending the federal investigation -- which never made much sense, and makes even less sense in light of recent reports. Unless, of course, you are looking for an excuse to delay taking action. 

Suffice it to say that within city government, there are serious concerns about how the community -- especially in police Zone 5, which includes Homewood -- would respond if the officers are cleared and reinstated. Jordan Miles, and the officers accused of beating him, have been in a protracted limbo ... but for city officials, that's probably the least uncomfortable place to be. 

After all, imagine how Griffin's report would have gone over last winter, when Miles' classmates were holding demonstrations outside City Council. Or imagine how a decision to discipline the officers would have gone over in March, when the FOP was wearing T-shirts in the St. Patrick's Day parade to show solidarity with the officers involved.

At this point, though, Miles and many of his friends have gone off to college; younger students are back in school. And Miles' attorneys have filed their civil suit. Football season is beginning, for God's sake.

"No justice, no peace" the old rallying cry declares. But it sure looks like law enforcement is keeping the peace by slowing down the justice system as much as possible.
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