Police Drama | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Police Drama

A lawsuit may not be quite the silver bullet some hope for

Do you ever feel like Pittsburgh is a little too much like a small town? I mean, you go to a bar, say, and meet someone who's just your type ... until you find out they work with your ex.

Or you're a police commander, say, who suspects misconduct from a would-be supervisor ... who hapens to have been a crony of your husband's old political enemy.

Such is the case with former police Commander Catherine McNeilly, who derailed a questionable mayoral appointment and got demoted for her trouble. And it's a reminder that sometimes, the only thing separating politics from policing is a couple of letters.

In early October, you may recall, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl nominated Dennis Regan to be public safety director. That position would have given Regan -- the late Bob O'Connor's political heavy -- final say in disciplining officers.

But Regan, allegedly, had started second-guessing commanders already. In e-mails sent to city council and other officials prior to Regan's confirmation, McNeilly implied that Regan had intervened in disciplining a detective ... who just happened to be the brother of Regan's housemate. Like I say, small world.

Ravenstahl ordered an internal investigation, which supposedly found "no conclusive evidence" of wrongdoing by Regan, who conveniently enough resigned anyway. McNeilly, meanwhile, was demoted from commander to lieutenant, ostensibly for releasing confidential information from the detective's file. Two weeks ago she filed a federal lawsuit, alleging that she was being punished for blowing the whistle on corruption.

None of this should be a surprise: Policing was always destined to be the Achilles heel for the O'Connor/Ravenstahl regime. And the McNeillys were probably destined to jam the spear into the weak spot.

Back during his failed 2001 mayoral campaign, O'Connor promised police that he would replace the current chief ... who just happened to be McNeilly's husband, Robert. In response, Catherine McNeilly herself wrote a letter warning neighbors that an O'Connor victory would spell "disintegration" for the police force.

It took four years for O'Connor to deliver on his promise, and you can bet there are a few cops smirking at McNeilly's troubles today. The ACLU, whose lawyers now represent McNeilly, previously squared off against her husband, alleging that he had violated officers' rights.

When one officer published a critical newspaper op-ed, McNeilly drafted a policy requiring police to try to "resolve issues of concern through internal procedures before expressing them publicly." McNeilly rescinded the policy when the ACLU objected. But in 2001, an officer complained that another McNeilly policy prevented him from testifying as an expert witness for other cops. Eventually, federal courts agreed that McNeilly had infringed on officers' rights.

So once again, an officer is claiming that departmental policy is being used to silence dissent. This time, though, the name "McNeilly" belongs to the plaintiff, rather than the defendant.

Department policy forbids using e-mail to transmit "confidential, privileged, and/or sensitive information" because of "the reduced effort that is required to redistribute such information" to others. And McNeilly's suit acknowledges forwarding the information to her brother -- the police department chaplain -- and her husband.

The lawsuit says she did so because she had "sought [her brother's] religious counsel," and because her husband already knew the officer's history. Moreover, the suit argues, any rules McNeilly may have broken were outweighed by the need to alert officials of potential wrongdoing.

I'll buy it. But McNeilly's e-mail habits mean this case may not be so clear-cut after all. And lest we forget: None of Robert McNeilly's courtroom setbacks as chief hurt Tom Murphy at the polls.

Sadly, all the frenzy over McNeilly's suit overlooks what may be its most damaging assertion: "that Regan had allegedly threatened a fellow Commander with adverse personnel action if [the] Commander enforced criminal statues against a purported political supporter."

This charge is related to a story first reported by KDKA in October -- and not given much attention by anyone since. As KDKA's Andy Sheehan reported, when Zone 3 Commander RaShall Brackney threatened a South Side tire-service firm with fines for working on cars out in the street, Regan allegedly "took matters into his own hands." Regan, Sheehan reported, showed up unannounced at the Zone 3 station and warned that "If [Brackney] didn't lay off ... she would be 'back walking a beat.'"

To me, that allegation is as troubling as anything else in this fiasco. Catherine McNeilly is getting all the attention, but perhaps the most sympathetic player in this drama is the one not saying a word.

For now.

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