Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Report: Police Union Head Hindered Investigations Grand Jury Studied Pair of Shootings by Officers

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Report: Police Union Head Hindered Investigations Grand Jury Studied Pair of Shootings by Officers

Article excerpt

An investigation by an Allegheny County grand jury found that Pittsburgh police failed to conduct thorough and transparent criminal investigations after two officer-involved shootings in 2017 and said the police union president tried to block investigators, according to a scathing report made public Friday.

The grand jury said in its 46-page report that Robert Swartzwelder, Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1 president, acted with "deliberate malfeasance" and "utter disregard" for the policies and ethical standards of the police bureau following the Jan. 22, 2017, fatal police shooting of a Larimer homeowner, as well as after a non-fatal officer-involved shooting in East Liberty in April 2017.

The union stopped investigators from gathering evidence after those shootings, the grand jury found, and such conduct led to the "appearance of impropriety" and what appeared to be a cover-up involving several officers, the report said.

"However, our investigation revealed that this lack of cooperation was actually orchestrated by FOP President Swartzwelder, who fought at every stage to ensure those tasked with overseeing the investigation would not be provided with all the facts and evidence necessary to determine whether the officers were justified in their actions," the grand jury wrote. "His efforts were effective, in part, because the command staff from the city police acquiesced to many of Swartzwelder's demands and did not enforce long-standing policies on conducting critical incident investigations."

The grand jury found that police command staff allowed Officer Swartzwelder to use "heavy-handed tactics" to dictate police procedure. It said the "loose manner" in which command staff supervised the critical incidents prevented the grand jury from bringing criminal charges against Officer Swartzwelder.

"While we find the actions of Robert Swartzwelder fall short of meriting a recommendation of criminal charges, we so find only because no one with any authority told him to stand down when they should have," the report states. "We cannot allege that he obstructed the administration of justice where those who are tasked with enforcing the law did not act on their authority."

The grand jury did not recommend criminal charges against Officer Swartzwelder or anyone else in the police bureau. It also found that the officers involved in the fatal shooting in Larimer acted within the law.

The grand jury did recommend that Pittsburgh police bring in Allegheny County police to investigate officer-involved shootings (which the city began doing in 2017), that it take pains to disseminate new policies in a timely manner, that command staff meet regularly with union leaders and that all officers receive training on their Miranda rights (warnings to those being questioned by law enforcement about their rights) and their Garrity rights (warnings given to government employees who may be subject to an internal investigation).

The Pittsburgh Police Bureau responded in a written statement that it holds members to the "highest standards of professionalism" while also ensuring the constitutional rights of officers involved in critical incidents.

The bureau pointed out that many of the report's recommendations have already been implemented and said other recommendations "are either not directed to the bureau or are confusing or vague."

Officer Swartzwelder and the FOP wrote in a response to the grand jury report that "several of the factual claims" in the report "are not accurate." Officer Swartzwelder declined to comment further Friday.

The FOP response said union officials "strongly object to the report's conclusions regarding the impropriety of Swartzwelder's conduct" at the various incidents, and said he was doing his job as union president and protecting the rights of police officers.

"He represents the rank and file police officers," the response reads. "His job is not to represent the city. …

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