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Police abuse complaints from '96 set for trials

Friday, January 04, 2002

By Marylynne Pitz and Dan Gigler, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

A federal judge this year will hear more than 40 complaints of misconduct filed against Pittsburgh police officers -- allegations that resulted in federal oversight of the department.

The complaints were part of a 1996 lawsuit that the American Civil Liberities Union brought against the police department on behalf of 66 individuals, claiming that officers had violated their civil rights.

It prompted a 10-month investigation of the Pittsburgh Police Bureau by the U.S. Justice Department and resulted in a federal consent decree overseeing the department.

In an order filed Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Robert J. Cindrich ordered that 43 of the claims in the 1996 lawsuit be assigned case numbers so he can begin hearing the cases in April.

A total of 66 plaintiffs were part of the original lawsuit but 12 either dropped their claims when the consent decree was signed or were dismissed by the judge for failing to comply with requests for documents, said Witold Walczak, executive director of the ACLU's Pittsburgh chapter. Walczak praised Cindrich's ruling, saying "it's time these folks had their day in court."

Of the 54 remaining plaintiffs, 36 are black.

While ordering case numbers for the 43 complaints, Cindrich said he was closing the original lawsuit.

He previously had considered assigning the various cases to federal judges and magistrate judges but decided against it.

"The logistical nightmare of having the same attorneys appear in front of every judge in the district for what is essentially the same set of issues would be inefficient," Cindrich wrote in his nine-page order.

A status conference for attorneys is scheduled for March 15 and the first trial will begin April 22.

The judge will spend more than 100 days hearing the cases, many of which will involve three-day jury trials. Cases that have several plaintiffs and many defendants may take as long as two weeks.

"The court's got to look at each set of circumstances and determine if the officer's behavior was unconstitutional," Walczak said.

In 1997, Justice Department officials found the city had tolerated a "pattern and practice" of police violating citizens' constitutional rights.

City officials denied that allegation. But in April 1997, Mayor Tom Murphy signed a consent decree that allowed Justice Department officials to oversee reforms.

The decree required police to make wholesale changes in oversight, training and supervision; develop a computerized early-warning system to track individual officers' behavior; document all traffic stops and arrests; and provide annual training in cultural diversity, integrity and ethics.

Cindrich, who has a docket of more than 550 cases, must also hear criminal cases because defendants have a constitutional right to speedy trials.

Under a Sept. 1, 1999 order from Cindrich, lawyers from the city solicitor's office will not participate in the trials. Instead, lawyers for the Fraternal Order of Police will represent the police officers.

In that same 1999 order, Walczak said, city officials agreed to pay any damages awarded by federal court juries.

The consent decree is set to expire in April. But before the Justice Department's oversight ends, Walczak said, "the city has to have been in substantial compliance for two consecutive years."

An October 2001 report by Dr. James D. Ginger, the court-appointed auditor of the consent decree, said the city was out of compliance because it lacked sufficient staff to cope with a heavy case backlog at its Office of Municipal Investigations.

Last January, OMI, which investigates allegations of police misconduct, had a backlog of more than 500 cases, some more than three years old.

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