Editor’s note: This story contains references to trauma and sexual violence.

The City of Pittsburgh is appealing an arbitration panel’s decision to reinstate a fired police officer who was found, in a civil proceeding, to have committed sexual assault against a colleague.

According to a Dec. 29 petition in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, the city terminated Officer Aaron Fetty in late September. But the Fraternal Order of Police [FOP] Lodge 1 filed a grievance, and two of three arbitrators determined that the city’s action fell outside of disciplinary time limits outlined in its police contract.

The firing stemmed from events on or around June 19, 2021, when an alcohol-fueled evening of police revelry closed with Fetty in the bed of another Zone 5 officer, according to court testimony by both officers. PublicSource and City Cast Pittsburgh have withheld the female officer’s name from reporting at her request, under standard journalistic practice in cases involving sexual violence, referring to her as Officer X.

The city suspended Fetty for three days and transferred him to another zone. 

Officer X then filed a civil case under the state’s Protection of Victims of Sexual Violence or Intimidation law. She and Fetty testified in a March 18 hearing. 

Senior Judge Kathleen R. Mulligan wrote in a March order “by a preponderance of the evidence that the Plaintiff is the victim of sexual violence. At a minimum, The Defendant committed the act of sexual assault.” The order barred Fetty from direct or indirect contact with Officer X.

According to the city’s arbitration appeal filed last week, the Allegheny County Police Department then reopened an investigation of the matter. There is no indication that any criminal charges have been filed against Fetty.

According to the city’s filing, it waited until the county police completed its probe, then fired Fetty effective Sept. 27. The FOP then initiated arbitration.

The arbitration panel consisted of one member chosen by the city (Law Department attorney Wendy Kobee), one chosen by the FOP (labor lawyer Christopher Cook) and a neutral party, Ralph Colflesh, who is a Philadelphia-area attorney.

With Kobee dissenting, the arbitration award found that “absent unusual circumstances” the city must take disciplinary action within 120 days of when it knows, or reasonably should know, about an infraction. Because the city’s action fell well outside of that window, it must return Fetty to work with back pay, the two other arbitrators found.

“It’s very common for the city to miss deadlines in many areas. This just happens to be one of them,” said FOP President Robert Swartzwelder.

The panel also found that the city had already disciplined Fetty, by suspending him in 2021, and could not punish him twice for the same conduct.

“In any employment situation, the employer has the upper hand to affect any employee’s work status,” said Swartzwelder. “Therefore if they conduct a full, impartial and thorough investigation when they take the action, that action should be final and complete.”

In Fetty’s case, he said, the city “inappropriately” treated the civil case as a second opportunity to invoke discipline.

Maria Montaño, Mayor Ed Gainey’s press secretary, said his “administration has always believed that domestic and physical abusers should not be part of our Bureau of Police. … It’s something we’re committed to as an administration.”

She declined further comment due to pending litigation.

The city, in its appeal, argues that the decision by the county police to reopen its probe constituted an “unusual circumstance,” and thus the 120-day clock does not apply. The city’s filing does not say when the county concluded its investigation. 

Requests for comment to Fetty’s attorney and Officer X’s attorney were not immediately answered.

The matter has not yet been assigned to a judge. Swartzwelder noted that when officers are terminated, they typically remain off work during appeals, drawing no income and lacking healthcare benefits.

Note: This story has been updated to reflect comments received since initial publication.

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s managing editor. He can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

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Rich is the managing editor of PublicSource. He joined the team in 2020, serving as a reporter focused on housing and economic development and an assistant editor. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...