It took the Citizen Police Review Board two years to collect and examine evidence and gather testimony on a complaint against a police officer accused of recklessly endangering a group of bicyclists. It took the police department 12 days to curtly reject the board's findings.
Based on nine complaints and the sworn testimony of four witnesses, the CPRB recommended that Sgt. Eugene Hlavac be suspended for seven days, undergo retraining and anger management, and possibly face prosecution by the district attorney based on the March 31, 2006, incident.
The board heard testimony on two counts: conduct unbecoming a member of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, and conduct toward the public. Hlavac cited cyclists in an organized Critical Mass ride in East Liberty, and the board found that he endangered the public by driving his cruiser through the group. One of the cyclists, Morgan Ress, filed a complaint a few days after the incident.
"I reject your recommendations regarding discipline," wrote Deputy Chief Paul J. Donaldson in a brief March 18 letter responding to CPRB Executive Director Elizabeth Pittinger. City code required a reply within 30 days, and the letter was turned around in 12.
Donaldson's letter acknowledged receipt of Pittinger's letter and what the board's findings were, then rejected the findings, saying that the bureau had already disciplined Hlavac in March 2007.
"I'm not going to speak to what it was," says Donaldson of the action against Hlavac. But he says a key reason the bureau rejected the findings of the board was timing: "The incident occurred in 2006, they didn't come to a conclusion until 2008. The disciplinary action had already been taken." He says that if the bureau were to wait two years to discipline officers, it would never stand up to union arbitration.
"It does not surprise me," says Pittinger of the rejection. "The paternal nature of that department says, 'We've dealt with him, we're done with him.' That's how I take it."
The review board, while granted the power to subpoena officers, can't carry out discipline -- it can collect evidence and sworn testimony at hearings, but its recommendations to the bureau do not have to be followed.
While Pittinger acknowledges that Hlavac was disciplined -- she doesn't know what the discipline consisted of -- she says the bureau didn't take into account the board's findings on potential criminal action on Hlavac's part.
As for the timing issue, Pittinger points to two problems: Ress and the other witnesses are students, with schedules that rarely match up; and the board wanted to examine the testimony Hlavac gave the city-run Office of Municipal Investigation, which wasn't released to the review board until December 2006. The board ordered a public hearing on the matter at its next meeting in January 2007.
So how could CPRB speed up its process, aside from the cat-herding challenges presented by collecting testimony from globe-trotting student witnesses?
"It would be incumbent upon the city to facilitate an expedited release of documents from the Office of Municipal Investigations," Pittinger says, adding that the board will be in talks with the city to address that very problem in the coming weeks.
Hlavac made news last summer when he was promoted to sergeant along with the promotion of George Trosky to commander and Charles Rodriguez to lieutenant, despite domestic-violence allegations hanging over all three.
"I don't know why he's a sergeant," Pittinger says. "His conduct at our public hearing demonstrates that he needs to grow up." Hlavac was plugged into an MP3 player during the hearing that was turned up so loud others in attendance could hear it, and didn't answer questions, pleading the Fifth Amendment.
"It's been pretty disappointing," says Ress. "[CPRB] found them to be serious acts of misconduct." He says he's been attempting to find recourse from city council members, including Tonya Payne, in whose district the incident occurred, and Bruce Kraus, chairman for the committee on public-safety services. He's also hoping to draw the attention of the National Organization for Women, in light of the domestic-abuse allegations against Hlavac.
"I'm sensitive to what Morgan is feeling and I admire him for coming through this process," says Pittinger. "I would not discourage him. [The board] did all we can do, we validated these issues."