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Pittsburgh police officer subject of multiple allegations 

Differing pictures of officer involved in $150,000 settlement

For local advocates of police accountability, 1996 was a pivotal year. Complaints of police abuse led to an American Civil Liberties Union federal lawsuit against the city that year, as activists pressed for an independent review board to investigate misconduct.

And in a 1996 audit of the city's handling of misconduct complaints, then-city controller Tom Flaherty came to a striking conclusion: "Our research convincingly demonstrates that 'a few bad apples' on the force [are] causing a disproportionate amount of citizen dissatisfaction."

Most officers had never been the subject of a citizen complaint, the audit found -- but less than 4 percent of the force accounted for roughly one-third of complaints. One officer, meanwhile, had 34 complaints against him.

All but five of those complaints were dismissed, the audit noted. But they raised a question: "How, after 33 citizen complaints, could a police officer possibly be in a position to attract a 34th?'" It recommended "a 'red flag' approach," in which officers facing multiple complaints would be required to get extra training, and possibly be disciplined.

Ultimately, the city adopted a tracking system, whose existence was mandated by a 1997 agreement with the federal Department of Justice. A computer database notifies police supervisors about complaints, commendations and other personnel issues. Police Chief Nathan Harper calls the system "one of the best ... in law enforcement."

But in a recently settled lawsuit, a plaintiff claims to have been mistreated by an officer who's been the subject of as many as two dozen complaints. City Paper has, in fact, turned up similar allegations against the officer. And though these remain unproven, some observers have doubts about how well the system is working today.

 

Nov. 18 was Matt Mazzie's first night on the job. Hired as a bakery deliveryman, he was riding in a U-haul van driven by his trainer, Blaine Johnston. Mazzie took notes on the route as the two drove down Fifth Avenue.

Around 4 a.m., things took a turn for the worse.

The deliverymen say they turned left onto Morewood Avenue, on a green light. While doing so, they heard an oncoming pickup truck -- a black Dodge pickup -- slam its brakes.

"It wasn't even close" to being an accident, Mazzie says.

According to the two men, who gave similar accounts of the incident in separate interviews, the pickup pulled up alongside them at a stoplight a few blocks away. "That was a bullshit move you pulled back there!" they say the driver shouted.

"Well if you weren't going so fast, there wouldn't have been a problem!" Johnston says he shouted back, before pulling away.

But that wasn't the end of the incident. The other driver rolled up alongside them again, they say, throwing coins at their window. Then the driver -- a white man in a brown leather jacket -- challenged Johnston to fight. "The next thing you know he comes out of his truck," Mazzie says, and "either punched the side of the mirror or elbowed it with his forearm. It was loud. It cracked the mirror." The man allegedly pulled Johnston's door open and tried to grab him before Johnston raced off.

"I was fearing for my life," Johnston says. "He's a big guy."

But the pickup came back, according to Mazzie and Johnston. They say the driver hit their van with the side of his truck, plowing them into the curb. Johnston threw the van in reverse, pulling off part of the truck's bumper. Mazzie dialed 9-1-1, directing police to meet them at the site of their next delivery: Children's Hospital. The pickup followed, and police soon arrived on the scene.

It was only then that Johnston, of Carnegie, and Mazzie, of Brookline, learned that the other driver was himself a Pittsburgh police officer.

In fact, officer Garrett Brown had been named in similar complaints. And this March, the city of Pittsburgh finalized a $150,000 settlement in a civil-rights case arising from another late-night traffic encounter, involving Texas man Leonard Hamler, in January 2008.

The settlement with Hamler includes a statement, typical in such cases, that no one admits wrongdoing. Other allegations have not been proven, either because the matter was dropped, or because of insufficient evidence. And since personnel records are confidential, there is no way to verify whether any of these complaints have led to departmental discipline.

But if true, the accounts paint a volatile picture of the 10-year veteran. Some citizens, and police-accountability experts too, are wondering whether there is a pattern here -- and whether the city is doing enough about it.

"Somebody like that," Mazzie says, "shouldn't be out on the street being this way -- somebody that's supposed to be protecting us and not attacking us."

 

City officials would not discuss the events of Nov. 18. Brown did not respond to multiple phone calls or an e-mail about the incident. While both parties say they called 9-1-1 during the encounter, county officials declined to provide the tapes without a subpoena, and denied a Right-to-Know request for them. The police report, however, tells a different story of the night's events.

In that account, Brown was sitting at a red light at the corner of Baum and Melwood when Johnston rear-ended his truck. Brown pulled up to the next stop light "so as to exchange information," police reported, but Johnston kept driving, even as Brown sounded his horn for him to stop. Johnston "stated that he had thought Brown wanted to fight him" and denied causing the accident, Sgt. William Kunz wrote in the report. Police wrote that the vehicles' damage was consistent with Brown's being rear-ended.

Days later, Johnston received a summons for leaving the scene of an accident, a third-degree misdemeanor. He faces a preliminary hearing on April 21. He's retained Hamler's attorney, Jerry O'Brien Jr., to represent him.

"This is a circus," Johnston says. "They charged me for leaving the scene of an accident. It wasn't the scene of an accident. It was an attack."

He and Mazzie have filed complaints with the city about Brown's behavior -- and they are not the first to do so.

Hamler's allegations are documented in his civil-rights lawsuit. According to his written complaint, he was driving a dump truck at 2:30 in the morning on Jan. 19, 2008, and says a car in front of him on Second Avenue forced him to apply his brakes repeatedly.

"Immediately thereafter," the complaint reads, "a pickup truck, that had been driving behind him, abruptly pulled in front of Hamler on an angle and stopped, nearly causing a collision." The driver of that pick-up truck was Brown, though Hamler's suit claims he didn't recognize the other driver was an officer because he was wearing a jacket over his uniform. Brown, the complaint alleges, "was irate and acting erratically and insisted that Hamler exit the dump truck on penalty of physical violence." After showing Hamler his badge, Brown ordered him out of the vehicle and handcuffed him. Other officers arrived, and Hamler was sent off without receiving a citation. But he alleges that he was slammed against his truck's hood, aggravating a shoulder injury.

Bryan Campbell, the Fraternal Order of Police attorney who represented Brown on that case, says that Hamler was driving erratically -- and that Brown was just doing his job.

Brown saw "a vehicle ... doing a little road rage, something that could have turned out to be fatal or a very serious accident," Campbell says. "Now an officer's got a choice in a situation like that: You can just ignore it, or you can pull the people over."

Hamler's lawsuit, however, suggests that Brown "has a history of physical violence toward citizens and a history of arresting and assaulting citizens only to release them without citation or without charges sufficient to warrant or arrest." The suit contends that Brown has "been the target of more than two dozen complaints by citizens." Moreover, it claims that records at the Office of Municipal Investigations, the police bureau's internal-affairs unit, "includes sustained findings of excessive use of force, sustained finding of threats to citizens, and sustained finding of lack of truthfulness" to city investigators.

Brown's OMI records are sealed, but Campbell rejects this portrayal of the officer's record. In the Hamler case, defense filings acknowledge that Brown has been the subject of "a number of complaints," but add, "The majority of complaints were either unfounded, or resulted in exoneration." And in other defense filings, the city asserts that Brown follows policies on "the proper use of force in given situations." Although Hamler claimed the city showed "deliberate indifference to the training and supervision of its police officers," the city contended that in April 2006, Brown received additional training in "verbal judo." That technique teaches officers how to defuse potentially volatile situations.

The Citizens Police Review Board, an independent agency which also investigates claims of police misconduct, has looked into Brown's conduct at least once. Beth Pittinger, the review board's executive director, says she is "well aware of Officer Garrett Brown," but can't discuss complaints that haven't reached the formal-hearing stage. The lone complaint that did reach a formal hearing, meanwhile, was dismissed for lack of evidence.

That complaint stemmed from a Jan. 27, 2006, incident during which cab driver John Walsh was parked at a cabstand at the Omni William Penn Downtown during rush hour. According to the transcript of the review board's public hearing, Walsh said he and other cabbies watched Brown write a citation for another motorist when Brown looked at the cabbies and demanded, "What the fuck are you looking at?"

Walsh testified that he replied "not much," and that Brown came over and told the three cabs at the stand to leave. Two other cabs did so, but Walsh remained, saying he'd done nothing wrong. Walsh testified that Brown threatened to have him ticketed and towed, and then threatened, "I'll drag you the fuck out of the cab by the neck if you don't get out."

In his own testimony, Brown said that the cabstand, though well established at the site, was not officially permitted by the city, and that he had the right to order the cabs off. Walsh, he said, had instigated the confrontation by "yell[ing] profanities" while he wrote out the ticket. Brown did not explain why Walsh would do so, but testified that Walsh "continued to yell profanities and interfere with me completing my duties."

Walsh didn't call any witnesses. The CPRB panel determined it did not have enough evidence to sustain the complaint. Such outcomes are not unusual, says Pittinger: "When you have a complaint, often it's he-said, she-said."

It was after this incident that Brown received the verbal-judo training, though it is unclear whether Walsh's complaint was the reason for it. In any case, another motorist complained of Brown's volatility the following year.

On Jan. 13, 2007, Brookline resident Ali Minnitte rear-ended Brown -- who was on-duty and mounted on a motorcycle -- in the West End Circle. Minnitte, then 19, acknowledges causing the accident: Wet and slippery conditions on the road prevented her from stopping in time, she says.

"At first I was really concerned because I thought he was really hurt," she says. "But I could see immediately he was fine because he got up off the ground and started running toward my car. He started kicking my car and punching my car," Minnitte says. "He said, 'You stupid fucking bitch. Get the fuck out of the car.' ... Part of me should have been relieved that I hit an officer instead of a crazy person. But it turns out it didn't matter."

Minnitte was cited for two traffic violations. According to court records, she was found guilty of "disregard of a traffic device" but the charge was overturned on appeal. She was also found guilty of careless driving. Brown sued her and her mother for injuries, a suit that was settled through arbitration in March, though the terms have not been made public. Shortly after the accident -- and years before the lawsuit -- Minnitte filed a review-board complaint "so I'd have a record of how I was treated." She later dropped the complaint: "It'd be more trouble than it'd be worth."

 

Police Chief Harper won't comment on personnel issues: Harper wouldn't even respond to a question about whether Brown had received any departmental commendations. But he says there are multiple levels of review when officers face complaints.

"The first is the daily supervision of the sworn employee both directly (face to face contact) and indirectly (review of an employee's daily activities and review of an employee's reports)," Harper writes in an e-mail. "Complaints are immediately referred to the Office of Municipal Investigations, and performance is reviewed quarterly."

"Every time someone makes a complaint, it's thoroughly investigated," Campbell agrees. "They don't just give the police officers a free pass on these things. They take it seriously."

Brown is still on the job, Campbell says, "because these matters were actually investigated and the decision was made they didn't warrant a termination." Wherever Brown's been assigned, "he's been a proactive police officer." (Campbell declined to comment directly on the allegations against Brown, but says of his own dealings with him, "I don't see him as aggressive. He's very soft-spoken.")

The complaints of Hamler and the deliverymen touch on another management issue for Harper: What is the city's policy when an officer is off-duty -- as Brown was in both incidents?

As City Paper first reported in January, city councilors have raised questions about why the city has been paying for lawsuits like Hamler's. City councilor Bill Peduto argued during a Jan. 12 council meeting that "[I]f I were out on my own time and I were to get into a fight, I don't think I'd be able to pass the buck to the city."

But Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration has said little about the matter: Solicitor Dan Regan would say only that there's "no absolute rule" for deciding when an off-duty officer is acting on his own. And when asked about the city's policy on off-duty police for this story, Harper would say only that the matter is "currently under review."

But off-duty or on, "The mere fact that officers have complaints, see, that's meaningless," Campbell stresses. Police leaders, he says, have found "the people getting the complaints were the best officers. If you're on the job and you never make an arrest, who's going to complain about you?"

Flaherty's 1996 audit echoes the point, stressing that a large number of complaints don't necessarily prove an officer is unfit. "There is no correlation between the number of complaints filed against an officer and the number ultimately sustained," the audit noted. Still, the audit urges further training -- and potentially discipline -- for officers named repeatedly, even if complaints were not upheld. "The emphasis ... should not be on determining culpability, but rather on increasing the awareness and effectiveness of the officer. For this reason, these measures should be taken regardless" of whether complaints are upheld.

Some experts say that's a wise approach.

Samuel Walker, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska and a national police-accountability expert, says there are officers who are active and don't incur multiple complaints. "Being active is one thing; being aggressive and abusive is another," he says.

A number of complaints "is something to worry about" even if they aren't all sustained, Walker says. "Complaints are inherently hard to sustain," he adds, often because they're he-said, she-said situations, involve minor misconduct or uses of force with no medical evidence, and no independent witnesses.

"The yellow flag should go up at three [complaints]," says ACLU legal director Vic Walczak, who filed the 1996 lawsuit that led to federal oversight of the department. Multiple complaints, as well as the severity of complaints, Walczak says, should trigger a closer look at the officer "with possible retraining and counseling if you don't get discipline."

Some complaints are groundless, of course. And Walczak acknowledges that it might be hard to choose what number of complaints should trigger further review. Still, he says, "whatever number you pick, it will be way below [the] two dozen" alleged in Hamler's lawsuit.

A federal judge lifted the consent decree from the police department in 2002. Harper says the current oversight system "was developed as part of the consent decree and has been a model for other cities."

Pittinger isn't so sure: Police procedures and policies are kept confidential, she says: "Nobody really knows how it works now because [the police] won't disclose anything."

In any case, Peduto fears history may repeat itself.

The consent decree "clean[e]d up some of the mistakes for years and made it a better force," he says. Missteps by the department, he warns, will help "citizens to make the case to the [Department of Justice] that the city is not enforcing the rules on itself. And once that case can be made, you can expect the federal authorities to come in."

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