The Fuzzy Blue Line | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Fuzzy Blue Line

When is a police officer not on duty? Judging by two court settlements involving the after-hours behavior of two city cops, apparently not often.

The city recently approved a $44,500 settlement to Kaleb Miller, who accused officer Paul Abel Jr. of assaulting him in the South Side in June 2008. City officials are also finalizing a $150,000 settlement to Leonard Hamler, a Texas man who claims officer Garrett Brown roughed him up during a traffic stop in January 2008.

The cases concerned allegations of excessive force and violation of constitutional rights. In federal court, attorneys for Miller and Hamler both argued that while neither officer was on the clock at the time of the incidents, they were acting in their official capacity -- meaning city taxpayers are on the hook. 

In Hamler's case, Brown was in uniform coming from an approved, off-duty bar detail when he saw Hamler allegedly driving dangerously. Hamler's lawsuit claims Brown ordered him out of the vehicle, handcuffed him and slammed him against the hood, aggravating a shoulder injury. Hamler was never cited. 

According to court records and testimony at the time, meanwhile, off-duty officer Abel had been drinking at his wife's birthday celebration the night of the incident; he accused Miller of assaulting him earlier in the evening, and Abel struck him with his handgun. The gun went off accidentally, striking Miller in the hand. Miller, who claims he was the victim of mistaken identity, was never charged. 

Some officials say they don't understand why such actions are the city's problem.

"[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 of Pittsburgh," Councilor Bill Peduto said at a Jan. 12 Pittsburgh City Council meeting. "This should be a personal matter."

"The city is responsible for the behavior of its officers," counters Gerald O'Brien Jr., Hamler's attorney. 

City Solicitor Dan Regan notes that the settlements do not admit guilt. (In fact, a judge cleared Abel of any criminal wrongdoing.) Regan was wary of discussing the cases, but says "there's no absolute" rule for determining when an off-duty officer is acting on his or her own.

James DePasquale, Miller's attorney, says the police manual's section on off-duty behavior when invoking authority "was silent" on the issue.

Diane Richard, police spokeswoman, says there is no written policy requiring that officers must enforce the law after hours. But if they do, she says, they are held to the same rules as on-duty police. "The badge doesn't come off," she says. "Officers are always held to a higher standard."

Bryan Campbell, an attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police who represents Abel and Brown, says citizens expect officers to uphold the law, no matter what the hour. "You want to tell the chief of police that once you're off the clock, we want [officers] to be private citizens? ... The public would be outraged." Being a sworn officer allows an officer to enforce the law at any time, anywhere in the state, he adds.

But others worry the settlements send the wrong message. Beth Pittinger, who heads the city's Citizens Police Review Board, is calling for a formal policy to spell out when off-duty officers can invoke their official capacity. Being a police officer "does not give them the license to break the law to do what they please," she contends. "That's where we're heading with these settlements."