Pittsburgh police Lt. Philip Mercurio once signed up to join the far-right, anti-government militia group the Oath Keepers, according to a USA Today report.

The Oath Keepers, founded in 2009 to protect its members’ rights from what it viewed as a tyrannical government, is now under intense scrutiny for its role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Cara Cruz, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Public Safety, confirmed that Mercurio is on the city’s force and said the Office of Municipal Investigations is investigating the matter. Pending the investigation, he has been reassigned to an “administrative assignment.”

Rolling Stone first reported last week that a Pittsburgh Police officer used their city email address to sign up for the group. Cruz said the email address was in a format last used by city employees at least a decade ago.

Mercurio was first hired by the city in 1988, according to public records. He did not reply to requests for comment. USA Today reported that Mercurio hung up on its reporter.

A spokesperson for Mayor Bill Peduto confirmed that the city has launched a “comprehensive investigation” but made no other comment.

Mayor-elect Ed Gainey said he would not tolerate having an officer tied to an extremist group. “You can’t uphold your position if you believe that people who don’t look like you are bad, or wrong, or should be discriminated against. There’s no room in our police bureau where we want that type of cop. That’s not the police officer that we want. My administration won’t tolerate that.”

Gainey acknowledged that state law makes firing officers difficult but called the issue a “public relations nightmare” for the police.

According to the USA Today report, Mercurio described himself as a firearms instructor in the sign-up form, and said he would “spread the word” to his “students.” It’s unclear when Mercurio made the statement or if he had any ongoing involvement with the group.

USA Today found 65 people who identified themselves as law enforcement trainers in a leaked list of people who signed up for the Oath Keepers, including Mercurio.

The Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board has opened an inquiry into Mercurio’s ties to the group. “Of course it’s a concern,” executive director Elizabeth Pittinger said. “It presents a challenge to the credibility of the officer, which of course reflects back to the bureau itself, and it undermines the public’s confidence of the bureau when there appears to be an expression of blatant bias.” The board’s next meeting is Dec. 7, when it will consider the OMI investigation and determine how to proceed on its inquiry.

Robert Swartzwelder, the president of the police union, told PublicSource: “I don’t know what he’s being accused of” when asked for comment on the USA Today report regarding Mercurio, and when asked about the prospect of an officer being involved with the Oath Keepers, he said, “I don’t know who they are.” 

The Oath Keepers website describes the group as “current and formerly serving military, police, and first responders, who pledge to fulfill the oath all military and police take to ‘defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.’’’

Activists who demonstrated against police violence said they were concerned for residents.

“Ultimately, as a Black resident of Pittsburgh, this makes me feel extremely unsafe,” said Jasiri X, founder and CEO of 1Hood Media, who called on the officer to be fired and questioned why an investigation is needed. “He used his Pittsburgh police email address to sign up for the Oath Keepers. So what do you have to investigate?”

Both Jasiri X and Brandi Fisher, president and CEO of the Alliance for Police Accountability, called on the city to create a policy that states officers who are found to be members of white supremacy will be immediately fired. The Oathkeepers are generally described as an extremist anti-government group.

“The idea that we just have this handful of apples, and the majority of people are OK, is false,” Fisher said. “There is a violent culture of policing, there is a racist culture in policing. And there are individuals who use the law, who use policing, to enact that violence and racism.”

This story was updated to include additional comment.

Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at charlie@publicsource.org and on Twitter @chwolfson.

Juliette Rihl is a freelance reporter. She can be reached at juliette@publicsource.org.

This fact-based local reporting drives impact and creates change. Help power that impact.

James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” PublicSource exists to help the Pittsburgh region face its realities and create opportunities for change. When we shine a light on inequity in our region, like the “completely unacceptable” conditions in low-income housing in McKeesport, things change. When we ask questions about policymakers’ decisions, like how Allegheny County is handling COVID-19 safety for its employees, things change. When we push for transparency on issues that affect the public, like in the use of facial recognition software by Pittsburgh police, things change.

It takes a lot of time, skill and resources to produce journalism like this. Our stories are always made available for free so that they can benefit the most people, regardless of ability to pay. But as an independent, nonprofit newsroom, we count on donations from our readers to support this crucial work. Can you make a contribution of any amount (or better yet, set up a recurring monthly gift) to help ensure we can continue to report on what matters and tell stories for a better Pittsburgh?

Charlie Wolfson is an enterprise reporter for PublicSource, focusing on local government accountability in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. He is also a Report for America corps member. Charlie aims to...

Juliette Rihl

Juliette Rihl reports on criminal justice, public safety and mental health for PublicSource. Her 2020 series on how court debt impacts low-income Allegheny County residents prompted the county to join...