County police will no longer investigate city police shootings

Saturday, March 09, 2002

By Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

For the past several years, the Allegheny County Police Department has overseen investigations of shootings involving Pittsburgh police officers.

But a recent change in county policy means its detectives won't be looking into last month's nonfatal shooting of a Homewood man by a Pittsburgh SWAT officer. As a result, city police are investigating themselves without the outside oversight required by law.

Under a city ordinance, after an officer shoots someone -- as was the case most recently on Feb. 20, when Officer Patrick Knepp shot Cecil Brookins after Brookins had shot and wounded two police officers -- the director of the city's Department of Public Safety is required to ask another law enforcement agency to supervise the investigation of the incident.

Public Safety Director Kathy Kraus said she does not get involved in finding an outside agency, instead deferring to Pittsburgh Police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr.

The chief, who supports having external supervision, has found himself in a difficult position, however.

In a low-key move, the county notified McNeilly late last year that as of Jan. 1, it would no longer supervise investigations of shootings involving city officers.

The county's main objection was that its detectives were hindered from having complete control over such investigations by opposition from the city police union.

"If there's a problem with the union and we can't extend ourselves to the fullest, then we just can't do it," county police Superintendent Kenneth Fulton said.

McNeilly said state police long ago informed Pittsburgh police that troopers wouldn't supervise investigations. The FBI ordinarily gets involved only when there are allegations of civil rights abuse. And the state attorney general's office comes in only by request from the local district attorney, who must plead either a conflict of interest or lack of resources.

With all these avenues closed and the county out of the picture, McNeilly is exploring his options by consulting with District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.

"I think what we're all interested in is having somebody independent from the bureau there to supervise the overall investigation," McNeilly said.

"I have asked the DA to consider this and sent him a copy of a letter asking for such assistance. If they don't agree to assist, I will look to ask the AG's office. Hopefully, someone will be willing," McNeilly said. "If not, we may have to look to having the county do the entire investigation and contend with the FOP's position on this in another forum."

The county's change of heart came during a standard end-of-year policy review.

"We did an overall review and determined with the help of the solicitor that we should be, as we are in all investigations, in charge," Fulton said. "In all the ones we're called into, we're in complete control of the investigation, and in matters of the city, we are not. We are just supervising."

By being merely supervisors, the county could run into difficulties if there is a difference of opinion with city investigators on how to run an investigation.

"If there's a disagreement in policy on an investigation, what do we do? If we suggest it should be this way and the city says it should be [that] way, we have a problem," Fulton said.

Fulton conferred with both county Solicitor Terry McVerry and county Manager Robert Webb before making his decision.

County police started assisting city police with investigations after former Officer Jeffrey Cooperstein shot and killed Deron Grimmitt Sr. of the Hill District in December 1998 during a chase.

The county was called in to do the entire investigation. Cooperstein was charged with homicide and acquitted in February 2000. He left the force because he has multiple sclerosis.

Since then, the county has supervised perhaps four other investigations, including the fatal shooting of a Spring Hill man in Garfield last October. Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht on Thursday ruled the shooting justifiable.

A month after the Cooperstein shooting, the Fraternal Order of Police sought to protect its union members by charging that it was unfair for county detectives to be brought in to do the work of city homicide detectives.

The union brought the matter to the state Labor Relations Board. But before the board could act, the two sides agreed that a county employee could manage an investigation, allowing that person to act in a nonunion capacity as a supervisor.

"When I first was confronted with it, I went to the FOP and said I thought it was an unfair labor practice. This was something they did not bargain for," FOP attorney Bryan Campbell said.

"[City] homicide does this work. Homicide has always done this work. You can't just take the work away from them and replace them through an outside agency unless you do it through collective bargaining, and we'd fight them tooth and nail through collective bargaining."

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