Report: Police union head hindered investigations
Grand jury studied pair of shootings by officers
An investigation by an Allegheny County grand jury found that Pittsburgh police failed to conduct thorough and transparent criminal investigations after two officer-involved shootings in 2017 and said the police union president tried to block investigators, according to a scathing report made public Friday.
The grand jury said in its 46page report that Robert Swartzwelder, Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1 president, acted with “deliberate malfeasance” and “utter disregard” for the policies and ethical standards of the police bureau following the Jan. 22, 2017, fatal police shooting of a Larimer homeowner, as well as after a non-fatal officer-involved shooting in East Liberty in April 2017.
The union stopped investigators from gathering evidence after those shootings, the grand jury found, and such conduct led to the “appearance of impropriety” and what appeared to be a cover-up involving several officers, the report said.
“However, our investigation revealed that this lack of cooperation was actually orchestrated by FOP President Swartzwelder, who fought at every stage to ensure those tasked with overseeing the
investigation would not be provided with all the facts and evidence necessary to determine whether the officers were justified in their actions,” the grand jury wrote. “His efforts were effective, in part, because the command staff from the city police acquiesced to many of Swartzwelder’s demands and did not enforce longstanding policies on conducting critical incident investigations.”
The grand jury found that police command staff allowed Officer Swartzwelder to use “heavy-handed tactics” to dictate police procedure. It said the “loose manner” in which command staff supervised the critical incidents prevented the grand jury from bringing criminal charges against Officer Swartzwelder.
“While we find the actions of Robert Swartzwelder fall short of meriting a recommendation of criminal charges, we so find only because no one with any authority told him to stand down when they should have,” the report states. “We cannot allege that he obstructed the administration of justice where those who are tasked with enforcing the law did not act on their authority.”
The grand jury did not recommend criminal charges against Officer Swartzwelder or anyone else in the police bureau. It also found that the officers involved in the fatal shooting in Larimer acted within the law.
The grand jury did recommend that Pittsburgh police bring in Allegheny County police to investigate officer-involved shootings (which the city began doing in 2017), that it take pains to disseminate new policies in a timely manner, that command staff meet regularly with union leaders and that all officers receive training on their Miranda rights (warnings to those being questioned by law enforcement about their rights) and their Garrity rights (warnings given to government employees who may be subject to an internal investigation).
The Pittsburgh Police Bureau responded in a written statement that it holds members to the “highest standards of professionalism” while also ensuring the constitutional rights of officers involved in critical incidents.
The bureau pointed out that many of the report’s recommendations have already been implemented and said other recommendations “are either not directed to the bureau or are confusing or vague.”
Officer Swartzwelder and the FOP wrote in a response to the grand jury report that “several of the factual claims” in the report “are not accurate.” Officer Swartzwelder declined to comment further Friday.
The FOP response said union officials “strongly object to the report’s conclusions regarding the impropriety of Swartzwelder’s conduct” at the various incidents, and said he was doing his job as union president and protecting the rights of police officers.
“He represents the rank and file police officers,” the response reads. “His job is not to represent the city. His job is not to help the district attorney prosecute police. Nor is his job to be overly concerned about the public relations aspect of how the advice given to his members by union reps and union attorneys might play in the media.”
Mayor Bill Peduto said in a statement Friday that the city cooperated fully with the grand jury investigation, and emphasized that Allegheny County police have, since
December 2017, investigated the city’s officer-involved shootings as part of a memorandum of understanding with the city.
“Claims in the grand jury’s report about police bureau command staff ‘passivity’ at critical incident scenes before the MOU was implemented — when the investigations were then overseen by the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office — are addressed in the bureau’s answer to the report,” Mr. Peduto said in the statement. “It must be noted that at any time the supervising detectives from the district attorney’s office could have intervened to stop the FOP president’s interference at the scenes, but did not do so.”
The grand jury investigation began after the Jan. 22, 2017, shooting of Christopher Mark Thompkins, 57, who was killed inside his house by officers responding to a security system alarm.
Mr. Thompkins’ ex-wife, Brenda Richmond, who was with him during the incident, said he grabbed her gun and chased away an intruder, later identified as Juan Jeter-Clark, by firing shots down the stairs. Police said Mr. Thompkins was “firing in their direction” when officers arrived.
A spokesman for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. declined to comment on the report Friday, calling it “self-explanatory.”
Mr. Zappala previously accused police of hindering his investigation of the incident on Finley Street, saying in September 2017 that his investigators were unable to get quick access to the crime scene and were stopped from immediately interviewing the involved officers.
While the grand jury identified “severe deficiencies” during the initial investigation of the Thompkins shooting by detectives J.R. Smith and Scott Evans — former Pittsburgh homicide detectives who joined the district attorney’s office — the detectives themselves testified that things went smoothly at the scene.
It was only afterward that problems developed “when they returned to police headquarters to observe the interviews of the involved and witness officers.”
The detectives expected to have brief contact with the officers involved in the shooting and to sit in on interviews with witness officers. Neither happened.
“Everything seemed to proceed per usual until Detectives Smith and Evans inquired as to when the interviews of officers would take place. The detectives were then told that they would not be participating in any interviews of officers that night, whether it was an interview of an involved, shooting officer or merely a witness to the shooting,” the report said.
It was later learned that officers who were witnesses to the shooting had already been interviewed that night by a city homicide detective, with a city police sergeant and Officer Swartzwelder present, the report said.
“This scenario flies directly in the face of City Council’s intent in passing the ordinance mandating outside, independent supervision of these incidents,” the report said.
“Our investigation did not reveal that leaving Detectives Smith and Evans out of the witness interviews was an intentional act by any one member of the command staff. What followed, on the other hand, was a deliberate attempt by the FOP president to impede the ongoing investigation and an utter failure by city command staff to do anything about it.”
The report said Officer Swartzwelder became angry at Sgt. Jim Glick for letting the DA’s detectives review body camera footage from Officer Brendan Flicker.
“Swartzwelder argued with Sgt. Glick in the presence of officers Flicker and [Harrison] Maddox that the video was Pittsburgh police property and that representatives from the district attorney’s office should not be watching it. Sgt. Glick disagreed, noting that he openly shares evidence with other law enforcement agencies and expects that others do the same for him and the city police force,” the report said.
Officer Swartzwelder again tried to intervene, the report said, when Sgt. Glick indicated that the DA’s detectives would be allowed to read Miranda warnings to the officers involved in the shooting and ask if they wanted to make statements, according to the report.
“Swartzwelder stood up, proclaimed that the detectives were not coming into the conference room, and declared that he and Officers Flicker and Maddox were leaving unless somebody was going to arrest the officers,” the report said. “Sgt. Glick tried in vain to reason with the FOP president, explaining that the officers merely had to listen to the Miranda warnings and invoke their right to not give a statement, if that was their wish.”
During the dispute over the body cameras, the report said Sgt. Glick consulted with Deputy Chief Thomas Stangrecki — then an assistant chief — who backed him. But when the sergeant sought the help of his superior over the Miranda warning, there was a different result and Deputy Chief Stangrecki “decided not to intervene.”
“He told Sergeant Glick to allow Officers Flicker and Maddox to leave although they had not yet been contacted by the supervising detectives,” the report states.
The report said the police command staff “acquiesced to the heavy-handed tactics of an off-duty, subordinate officer.”
Officer Swartzwelder behaved similarly after a nonfatal shooting in East Liberty on April 29, 2017, according to the report. In that incident, Officer Gino Macioce wounded 20-year-old Christopher Howard after Howard robbed two women.
Officer Macioce was placed in a patrol vehicle to wait for a replacement firearm, because his would be collected as evidence.
Two DA detectives were dispatched to the scene. Detective Fran Laquatra arrived and found City Assistant Chief Lavonnie Bickerstaff, who said she’d take her to see Officer Macioce. But before the pair could get to the patrol vehicle, they were stopped by Officer Swartzwelder, who “emerged from the vehicle where Officer Macioce was seated,” according to the report.
Officer Swartzwelder told the district attorney’s detective that her presence was a violation of Officer Macioce’s constitutional rights.
“Swartzwelder even went so far as to direct Detective Laquatra to a sidewalk away from the vehicle where Swartzwelder had determined that she would be allowed to stand,” the report reads.