Does the system for disciplining police officers need an overhaul? Target 11 investigates

Does the system for disciplining police officers need an overhaul? Target 11 investigates

PITTSBURGH — A Pittsburgh police officer fired once was reinstated and fired again. Now Target 11 Investigator Rick Earle has exclusively learned that the officer is fighting to get his job back for a second time.

Officer Paul Abel recently came under fire after arresting a man in Squirrel Hill, who had questioned why Abel was wearing a Blue Lives Matter mask. But it wasn’t that controversial arrest that got Abel fired.

Law enforcement sources tell Target 11 that Abel was let go after arresting a panhandler outside Heinz Field in October. All charges were eventually withdrawn.

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Target 11 has learned that Abel plans to fight the firing, and the president of the police officers’ union said he’s confident Abel will be reinstated.

“I’ve seen the evidence of the case and it’s garbage. 90% of it is rumor,” said FOP President Bob Swartzwelder.

Abel has a history of controversial arrests and complaints of excessive force, including an altercation with former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Joey Porter outside a bar on the South Side, and a tow-truck driver who claimed Abel handcuffed him after he asked for a police report.

Abel is relying on the same system that got him reinstated after he was charged with aggravated assault and found not guilty a decade ago.

It’s called Act 111. It’s a collective bargaining agreement that prohibits Pittsburgh police and fire unions from going on strike, but in return allows them to take disciplinary cases to arbitration where three members, one from the union, one from the command staff and a neutral third party decide if the punishment is appropriate.

Pittsburgh’s mayor has expressed frustration with the system that’s been used for more than 50 years.

“I don’t think the majority of Pittsburghers understand that. I don’t think that they know that even if I do fire a police officer or a firefighter that is not the final decision. In almost all cases, the arbitrator will rule with the firefighter or police officer. They will give them their job back,” said Mayor Bill Peduto.

“I would have to adamantly disagree with the mayor’s statement in that particular case. It’s a due process system. That’s the way it works and sometimes the FOP and the officers are successful. Sometimes the city is completely successful,” said Swartzwelder.

Target 11 reviewed the police bureau’s annual reports from 2017 to 2019 and found a total of 10 officers were fired. One officer in both 2017 and 2018 was reinstated in arbitration.

It’s unclear how many cases made it to arbitration.

Swartzwelder pointed to the case of Officer Robert Kramer, who was fired after an alleged road rage incident, acquitted at trial and then ordered reinstated at arbitration.

Despite that decision and court rulings upholding Kramer’s reinstatement, the city has refused to put him back on the force.

“They’re blatantly ignoring all the rules that this system has laid out and they’re just saying we don’t care. Keep litigating,” said Swartzwelder.

The arbitration system came under renewed scrutiny last year after protests across the country and in Pittsburgh over the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.

A handful of local activist organizations then demanded police reforms, including changes to the decades old arbitration system.

“One of the goals of the Black Political Empowerment Project is to create positive community police relations. It’s hard to do that when there’s an absence of accountability,” said Tim Stevens, executive director of BPEP.

Mayor Peduto has said he supports changes that would give the police chief more power to enforce discipline.

“It’s a lot easier to create a cultural change in discipline within an organization when there isn’t a backdoor in order for people to use as an escape route,” Peduto said.

The president of the police officers’ union issued a warning.

“If you open the statute up, the very first thing I’m going to ask for is when the city acts unfairly, we’d like the limited right to strike,” Swartzwelder said.

“I think we need to just close the door and come back and start all over again,” said Beth Pittinger, Executive Director of the Citizen Police Review Board.

Pittinger has concerns about the system when it comes to disciplining officers.

“It’s all kind of spiraled down and devolved into an environment where it appears that there is more protection for officers than for the workplace because of arbitration outcomes. They’re secret so we the public doesn’t have the opportunity to evaluate for themselves whether this was reasonable or not,” Pittinger said.

She believes the entire system needs an overhaul.

“We need to stop, and we need to step back, and we need to look at how do we create, a process that remains fair, that everybody knows what the rules are, and that your conduct is going to be measured, against those rules,” Pittinger said.

Target 11 has also learned that seven elected officials from municipalities across the state including the two largest cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, have just launched a concerted effort to reform Act 111. They signed and sent a letter to every state lawmaker, urging them to change Act 111 and essentially prohibit police officers from taking disciplinary cases to arbitration. Changing the act would take action by the state legislature.

Target 11 will continue to follow this developing story and bring you the very latest.

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