The checkered decade of one Pittsburgh officer shows the shortcomings of police discipline

A single officer who was the subject of 119 allegations of misconduct since 2010 is far from the only repeat rule breaker at the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police.

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Partial silhouette of police officer with handcuffs. (Map by Natasha Vicens/PublicSource)

(Photo illustration by Natasha Vicens/PublicSource)

A single Pittsburgh police officer has been the subject of 119 allegations of misconduct that have reached the city’s Office of Municipal Investigations since 2010. They stemmed from 56 separate incidents. And nearly one in three involved force or weapons.

The officer identified in OMI data by the number 1761 is an outlier, but far from the only repeat offender.

Across the bureau, 22 officers had five or more accusations against them sustained —  meaning the Office of Municipal Investigations [OMI]  found that a violation of city policy occurred — since 2010. Some of those continued to rack up complaints into this year.

The majority of officers faced just a handful of complaints over the years, according to data the city provided to PublicSource in response to a request under the Right-to-Know Act. Nonetheless the OMI data shows that numerous officers who have violated Pittsburgh Bureau of Police policies have remained on the force, only to violate again and again.

"What the police say is, 'That's just an aggressive officer,'" said Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the city's Citizen Police Review Board, which is separate from OMI. "Well, we don't need aggressive officers. We need competent, reliable officers."

Mayor Bill Peduto has complained this year that “I can’t fire a police officer” and make it stick. That, he has said, is a function of officer discipline rules driven by collective bargaining and binding arbitration.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto talks about police and protests, in the Mayor's Office conference room on Aug. 25, 2020. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto talks about police and protests in the mayor's office conference room on Aug. 26, 2020. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

"When they have a problem like an officer with multiple allegations and complaints,” said Pittinger, “sometimes they fire somebody and they get put back on the job." The data does not indicate the extent to which the administration has tried to fire officers, only to have arbitrators return them to the force.

PublicSource last week repeatedly asked to interview administration officials about police complaint data, but no such conversation was granted. Fraternal Order of Police [FOP] Lodge 1 President Robert Swartzwelder, a city officer, could not be reached for comment.

Pittsburgh Bureau of Police spokesperson Chris Togneri called the complaint data "a personnel matter that we cannot discuss," adding that bureau brass weren’t available for interviews because their "focus is on ensuring the public and our personnel remain safe and healthy during the pandemic."

The data raises serious questions, according to a leading local voice in the protests that erupted locally after the May death of George Floyd under a Minneapolis police officer's knee.

"If you won’t throw the bad apples out, if you have identified officers who over and over again consistently have allegations against them that are sustained, and you allow them to continue to be on the force, then you are complicit in the next thing that these officers do,” said Jasiri X, CEO of 1Hood Media.

Jasiri X, executive director of 1Hood Media, speaks to members of the news media at a at a press conference on the portico of the City-County Building on Monday, June 15. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Jasiri X, executive director of 1Hood Media, speaks to members of the news media at a press conference on the portico of the City-County Building on June 15, 2020. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

The city employs around 900 uniformed police, from the chief to beat cops. Bureau turnover suggests that a few hundred others served at some point since 2010. Most officers — around 600 — had between one and four allegations investigated by OMI since 2010. Though the data does not specify the number of officers who have faced no allegations, it appears likely that they number in the hundreds.

On the other hand, 101 officers have faced 10 or more allegations on which OMI has ruled. (A single complaint to OMI can contain more than one allegation.) PublicSource broke the allegations into 11 categories.

OMI investigates, then issues one of four findings for each allegation: 1) that the employee is exonerated; 2) that the allegation was unfounded; 3) that the matter was not resolved; 4) that the allegation was sustained. OMI Manager Erin Bruni has described “exonerated” as meaning the employee did not violate rules, while “unfounded” means the allegation of misconduct is found to be not true.

Even sustained allegations don’t necessarily spur discipline. Reprimands, suspensions and terminations are meted out through a separate process in which a paper Disciplinary Action Report [DAR] climbs the city’s chain of command, eventually reaching the public safety director. Sanctioned officers can file grievances and seek to overturn their punishments under the arbitration award that governs relations between the city and the FOP.

The data provided by the city doesn’t show when allegations sustained by OMI, or DARs, brought discipline upon officers. It also does not allow PublicSource to definitively identify the individuals accused in 4,669 resolved or ongoing allegations against Bureau of Police employees. The data included 3,950 allegations against uniformed personnel on which OMI ruled, plus 719 other allegations, either still under review or against civilian personnel.

Rather than names, the officers accused in complaints were assigned numbers.

MORE: Pittsburgh’s police complaint data,  and how PublicSource analyzed it

The officer facing both the most accusations, and the most sustained findings, was given the number 1761.

Since 2010, an average year in the career of officer 1761 has included:

  • five separate complaints
  • containing a total of 11 allegations
  • of which one was sustained.

"In a world where very few complaints are actually sustained, percentage-wise, I want to know why on earth that person is still there," said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh professor of law specializing in law enforcement issues, who was a member of Peduto's Community Task Force on Police Reform. "This is a person violating the rules and regulations of his own department, which are there not only to provide good order and discipline in the military sense, but also to protect the public."

Jasiri X asked whether such a track record would be possible in any other profession.

“There’s 100 complaints on this dude over the course of this period," he said. "Do you think he should still have a job? No, that dude should be fired from that job.”

Use-of-force or weapons-related matters made up nearly one in five OMI-investigated allegations against all officers. Typically, the OMI data did not go beyond the vague descriptor “use of force” when that was the nature of a given allegation.

Officer 1761’s portfolio of 39 use-of-force or weapons-related allegations, though, includes four “physical arrests,” three punches, three shoves, three forcible handcuffing incidents, plus a choke, a kick, a tackle, an open-hand strike and the use of an “impact weapon.”

OMI sustained none of the use-of-force allegations against officer 1761. The 11 allegations sustained against the officer related to:

  • conduct toward the public (6 allegations)
  • searches and seizures (2)
  • arrests (1)
  • traffic- or vehicle-related matters (1)
  • failing to work a whole shift (1).

For the remaining accusations, officer 1761 was exonerated 26 times, while 58 were deemed unfounded, 16 not resolved, and eight not yet finalized. The roughly 10% proportion of allegations against officer 1761 that were sustained is very close to OMI’s overall sustained rate.

The second-most accused officer, with 64 allegations, saw two of them sustained.

The city’s internal investigators sustained fewer than 4% of the use-of-force or weapons-related allegations against officers. The only category of allegation that was less likely to be sustained: those involving discrimination, civil rights or bias violations, with 2% sustained.

On the other end of the spectrum, more than half of allegations related to truthfulness or report-writing were sustained.

Pittinger said violations of truthfulness rules are particularly troubling.

"The law enforcement power that [police] have hinges on their truthfulness and their ability to use independent judgment, and if you can't trust, then an individual is not well-qualified to be a police officer,” she said. “If you don't have integrity and credibility, then you can't enforce the law,” she said, noting that part of the job is to testify under oath in court.

Alleged violations of truthfulness and report-writing rules are among the allegation types that have risen steeply in recent years, during which the city has seen an overall upswing in accusations against police after a downward trend earlier in the Peduto administration.

The data shows that numerous violators of the bureau’s truthfulness policy retained their jobs. Eight officers violated the bureau's truthfulness policies, continued to serve and had subsequent sustained violations, according to the OMI data.

They are not alone among officers who have committed what appear to be serious violations, sustained by OMI, and yet remain on the force.

  • In 2011, OMI sustained an allegation related to domestic violence against officer 474. Investigators sustained allegations against the same officer of "conducting self-assigned investigations" in 2012, and of conduct unbecoming a city employee in 2017. The officer faced a new allegation, not described in detail in the data, in September 2020.
  • Officer 2041 had allegations sustained by OMI in 2012 related to firearms handling and conduct unbecoming. That officer has faced eight separate complaints since (none yet sustained), including one filed in June 2020.
  • In 2012, OMI sustained an allegation of conduct unbecoming against officer 379. Since then, it sustained further complaints related to conduct later in 2012, in 2013 and 2017, of an improper investigatory stop in 2013, and a "harassment - sex" allegation in 2017. The officer was last accused of a violation in September 2019, and that was still under investigation as of November 2020.

“What does that say to the officers coming up?" Jasiri X asked. "That says, OK, I can also do this, brutalize folks and get away with it. And that is what creates a culture.”

He said other cities' experiences suggest that failure to address that culture could have consequences. “If you don’t put any real, sustainable measures in place, then we’re just really waiting for something to happen in this city like happened in Minneapolis and elsewhere, and then this whole city explodes.”

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

This story was fact-checked by Matt Maielli.

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