Policy questions: Miles lawsuit raises issues about city's undercover units | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Policy questions: Miles lawsuit raises issues about city's undercover units

"You're asking for trouble if you're sending officers out there looking for guns and drugs without any guidance."

Their mission, according to police officials, is to "proactively" patrol Pittsburgh's streets. Where there are guns and drugs, the undercover officers policing city neighborhoods in so-called "99" units are tasked with making them disappear. 

For more than a decade, the undercover units employed by the Pittsburgh police had operated in relative obscurity. But that changed two years ago, on Jan. 12, 2010, when three plainclothes officers patrolling Homewood in a "99" car arrested and beat Jordan Miles.

The former CAPA student's high-profile arrest sparked multiple investigations and a civil lawsuit. And it immediately drew criticism from police-accountability activists, some of whom argued that the undercover units were no different from the police bureau's highly controversial "jump squads" of the mid-1990s. 

But while police officials contend that the "99" units play an integral role in policing Pittsburgh's streets, an expert report recently filed in the Miles family's civil suit against the city raises concerns about a lack of oversight.

 "There are no specific [policies] for '99' cars, and there should be," says Beth Pittinger, executive director of Pittsburgh's Citizen Police Review Board. "It should be outlined what '99' cars are supposed to do, and how they are managed." 

In late December, R. Paul McCauley, a retired criminology professor hired by Miles' attorney, filed an expert opinion analyzing the events that transpired between the Homewood teen and the three undercover officers. Unlike the opinion filed days earlier by the city's expert, who backed the officers, McCauley's report largely criticized the actions of Miles' arresting officers, Richard Ewing, Michael Saldutte and David Sisak. 

McCauley argues that the officers didn't do enough to properly identify themselves to Miles and that they used excessive force in restraining the teen. With regard to the "99" units, specifically, McCauley's report takes issue with the officers' insistence that none of the three were in charge of the unit. McCauley's assertions are based on statements made by the three officers and police officials in sworn depositions.

Officer Ewing, for one, said that the officers "act instinctively," and that "He does not know if there is a '99' car policy." According to McCauley's report, police commanders RaShall Brackney and Scott Schubert both testified that there are "no specific policies for '99' cars." He also notes that police Chief Nate Harper testified that there is "[n]o special training for '99' car-assigned officers."

"None of the three officers was the officer-in-charge and each officer acted instinctively," McCauley concludes in his report. "As such[,] this undercover '99' unit lacked operational control and supervision[,] which unnecessarily escalated the intensity of this conflict."

"You're asking for trouble if you're sending [officers] out there looking for guns and drugs without any guidance on what they should do," says Samuel Walker, a criminology professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who specializes in police policy. "There should be special rules governing their behavior."

For example, Walker says, the police department should set specific rules for "99" cars when it comes to going after guns, noting that they should have their own search-and-seizure guidelines. He says there should also be rules in place telling "99" officers when and how to coordinate with regular, uniformed patrol officers. 

In addition, Walker says, undercover officers must receive special training on issues of race. "If they are assigned to proactively investigate," he says, "a lot of their work is going to be in black or Hispanic neighborhoods."

Deputy Police Chief Paul Donaldson, however, says officers working in "99" cars don't require additional oversight. 

"The conduct of the 99 crew is regulated by the same Rules, Regulations and Procedures and the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics that guide all sworn personnel in maintaining the highest standards of ethical conduct," he wrote in an email to City Paper. 

The purpose of "99" cars "is to provide proactive policing," writes Donaldson, noting that each police zone has a "99" car that is manned by two or three officers. "Unlike our other marked patrol cars, the 99 car ... provides [officers] an opportunity to conduct surveillance operations, address drug activity in a community, disarm those unlawfully in possession of firearms and to generally improve the quality of life for the residents of that area."

Vic Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, doesn't buy the city's argument that the "99" units don't need special policies in place to govern their work. The absence of such guidelines, he says, is "absolutely concerning."

Immediately after Miles' arrest, Walczak says he was shocked by the brutality of the beating the teen suffered, "but the bigger concern was that it seemed to signal the return of the 'jump squads'" of the mid-1990s. 

Back then, the city employed "street response units" to patrol city streets undercover for guns and drugs. Walczak says the units were dubbed "jump squads" because officers would drive around profiling young black men and then frisk them without cause. 

"If they found something, they'd bust them," he says, "and it not, they'd jump in the car and take off."

In response to a class-action lawsuit filed in 1996, the police department eventually disbanded the controversial units. But Walczak says he doesn't see any difference between the old jump squads and today's "99" units.  

Despite such concerns, Pittinger says the CPRB has heard only "a handful of complaints" about officers patrolling in "99" cars, all of which "are not unique to '99' cars."

Still, she says, the fact that there aren't rules in place for the undercover units is troubling. "What are the expectations and duties of a '99' vehicle?" Pittinger asks. "[The police] have to start defining what they can get engaged in."