The city's Citizen Police Review Board finally has five members -- enough to review complaints of alleged police misconduct brought before it. But its newest member, retired Pittsburgh police commander Ronald Freeman -- one of two ex-law enforcement officials required for the board -- arrives just a few years after local critics of police conduct accused him of, at the very least, a sin of omission.
John Charmo, a city housing police officer, shot and killed Jerry Jackson while chasing Jackson through the Armstrong Tunnels in 1995. At his trial, Charmo claimed that Jackson had made a U-turn in the narrow, curving tunnel and was heading back toward Charmo, making the officer's fatal shot an act of self-defense. It was an argument that must have worked, since Charmo's trial resulted in a hung jury. He served minimal time after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
Four years later, during the proceedings of a civil suit brought by Jackson's family, Freeman revealed under questioning that the shooting scene had been videotaped -- a fact neither he nor other officers involved in the investigation had volunteered earlier at the inquest or trial. The tape showed that Jackson's purported U-turn in the Armstrong Tunnel was virtually impossible.
"There is dispute around the inquest and trial that nobody spoke up and said, 'Hey, wait, there is a tape,'" acknowledges CPRB head Elizabeth Pittinger. But should Freeman have spoken up? Should any police officer have done so? "There are a lot of other people" besides Freeman who knew of the tape, Pittinger says. "The initial homicide report reflects that the scene had been videotaped."
Freeman, when reached at home, said he did not wish to comment until he began his official tenure on the board.
"He's qualified to be on the board," Pittinger says. "The rest is a discussion of policy [and] opinion, I suppose." Freeman was the only one of two nominees approved in November by city council, after being submitted by the mayor. Another former city police commander, Gwen Elliot, withdrew her name from consideration just prior to the confirmation hearing.
"He's never been charged with any crime related to that case," Pittinger says of her new CPRB colleague. "It's an unpleasant aspect of a very tragic event."
Besides, she assures, the tension between board members' disparate expertise provides checks and balances for their decisions. "He is one of five members now in -- hopefully soon -- a full compliment of seven members. No one acts alone." The mix of views, she believes, "can only further the mission of the board."