by Chris Potter
Karl Marx once said that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. And the third time, apparently, it repeats as an allegation in a federal civil-rights suit against the Pittsburgh police.
As the Post-Gazette first reported Sunday, the city's police brass is on trial in a federal civil court this week, thanks to a lawsuit filed by 32-year-old Jarret Fate, who alleges that his vintage Porsche was damaged in 2010 by a former police detective, Bradley Walker. Walker reportedly rammed his vehicle into Fate's and later choked the man; he was fired after pleading guilty to simple assault in the incident. But Fate is alleging that the city was negligent in keeping Walker on the force even after he'd been the subject of more than 30 complaints between 1993 and 2008. The complaints included allegations of excessive force, domestic violence, and "road rage"-like behavior. You can read a list of those allegations against Walker below, in a document culled from fillings in Fate's lawsuit.
Judging from yesterday's arguments in court, city attorneys will argue that Walker was off-duty when he accosted Fate, so his behavior isn't the city's fault. It'd be ironic if that defense actually worked: In another case of a cop accosting an innocent citizen while off the clock, a judge found that police officers are never really "off duty" -- even when they are celebrating their wife's birthday on the South Side and shoot someone by accident.
But whatever the court finds in the Fate case, there's at least anecdotal evidence to suggest that the city can't effectively handle officers with long disciplinary records.
Even as Fate's trial was beginning, the police bureau was reeling from another case in which an officer with a lengthy disciplinary history -- Detective Frank Rende -- was accused of improper conduct. Rende was caught on tape during a St. Patrick's Day event in the South Side, yelling at bystanders, waving around a Taser, and accosting a partier who appeared to be leaving the scene. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has said Rende ought to be fired, and while the FOP says he's reacting too quickly, you could also argue that the response has been far too slow. Concerns about Rende, after all, date back more than a decade. In fact, allegations that Rende's political ties were helping him avoid discipline became the subject of yet another federal lawsuit.
I'm on record as not being entirely convinced by those allegations. Still, considering that Rende has been the subject of a dozen citizen complaints -- including a reported instance where he had sex with a woman who'd called police to her home -- you have to wonder whether this is the guy you want supervising rowdy St. Patrick's Day revelers.
For that matter, as City Paper first reported two years ago, the city also allowed some two dozen complaints to pile up against another officer, Garrett Brown, who like Walker was accused of accosting uncomprehending motorists.
Brown and Walker were eventually removed from the force. Maybe Rende will be too. But the question here is: How did it get to this point at all? How is it that an officer piles up two or three dozen complaints in the first place?
That's not a new question. As we reported in our Brown story, and as some city officials later echoed, people have been asking it as far back as 1996. That was the year then-City Controller Tom Flaherty audited the city's handling of police complaints. His ensuring report found that "'a few bad apples' on the force [are] causing a disproportionate amount of citizen dissatisfaction." While most officers had never been the subject of a single complaint, less than 4 percent of cops accounted for roughly one-third of all the complaints lodged against the bureau. One officer had 34 complaints alone.
As it turned out, all but five of those officer's complaints were dismissed, and of course the FOP will point out that being accused of misconduct isn't the same as being guilty of it. But Flaherty's audit suggested that so many complaints -- proven or not -- ought to be a red flag in its own right. "How, after 33 citizen complaints," it asked, "could a police officer possibly be in a position to attract a 34th?"
More than 15 years after Flaherty's audit, the city appears to have no good answer for that question. History has now repeated itself so many times that the department itself is starting to look like a farce.
Most members of the city police force don't deserve that: As we've also been reminded recently, they put themselves in harm's way every day. And today, as in 1996, the vast majority of police officers do a good job. The problem is, they work for a police bureau that -- over the course of nearly two decades and multiple mayoral administrations -- seems almost completely incapable of telling the difference. They, and the city, are paying a price for that, no matter what verdict Fate receives.