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Grand Jury Report Rips Police, FOP President Over Officer-Involved Investigations In 2017

Megan Harris
90.5 WESA

An Allegheny County grand jury report released on Friday says the Pittsburgh Police command staff failed to properly conduct investigations following two officer-involved shootings, and stood by as Robert Swartzwelder, the president of Pittsburgh’s Fraternal Order of Police union, interfered with those investigations.

The first shooting detailed in the report occurred on January 22, 2017, when police officers shot and killed Christopher Mark Tompkins during an incident at 129 Finley Street in Larimer.

The grand jury report ultimately concluded that the officers “acted in accordance with their training” and were justified in the shooting of Tompkins, but that officers’ lack of initial cooperation “led to an inference that officers were ‘covering up’ what had happened and raised questions regarding the integrity of critical incidents within the city of Pittsburgh.”

At the time, Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office detectives were charged with investigating shootings involving Pittsburgh Police officers. The DA detectives expected to get first-hand accounts from the police officers involved. The report says “the protocol at the time called for the Pittsburgh police to conduct the interviews of any of its officers who were involved in, or witnesses to, the critical incident. District Attorney Detectives were supposed to sit in and observe these interviews as they took place.”

But in this case, the report says the detectives weren’t able to do so. FOP president Swartzwelder actually removed the involved officers from police headquarters, preventing DA detectives from participating “in any interviews of officers conducted on the night of the incident.”

Swartzwelder did not immediately return calls for comment. The FOP's official response to the grand jury report said that "several of the factual claims are not accurate" and that it strongly objected to the report's "conclusions regarding the impropriety of Mr. Swartzwelder's conduct at the incidents."

The report notes that 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.”

Following another officer-involved shooting at an East Liberty Sunoco gas station on April 29, 2017, the grand jury report says that Swartzwelder interfered again, while police leadership stood by. 

The report says Swartzwelder doubled down on his methods in a podcast appearance later that year, criticizing top brass, the district attorney’s office, the U.S. Attorney, federal judge, investigators, FBI agents and fellow local law enforcement officers who he believed mishandled a separate officer-involved incident, but never addressed the actions of the officer himself. “[Swartzwelder] casts wild aspersions upon others regarding their competency and ethics,” according to the report, and then goes on to insist criminal investigations be carried out quickly and thoroughly with access to all involved parties. The report states, “It is hard to ignore the obvious hypocrisy between these words and his obstructive behavior following the Finley Street and Sunoco critical incidents.”

In 2018, the protocol around officer-involved shooting was changed with a new memorandum of understanding (MOU), removing the responsibility from the Allegheny County District Attorney Office and placing it with the Allegheny County Police Department, which now has “full investigative and supervisory authority” following officer shootings. The grand jury report was supportive of that policy update.

While the grand jury report did not recommend criminal charges against Swartzwelder, it notes that his interference in the investigations “created a suspicion of wrongdoing.”

Furthermore, the report notes, “We are also hopeful that the leadership of the Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge #1 recognizes the need for a full investigation into critical incidents while respecting the constitutional rights of the officers involved. Only a full, fair and transparent investigation can lead to a determination of whether an officer was justified in his or her use of force. We expect that should the FOP continue its practice of manufacturing obstacles to such investigations their actions will be subject to a criminal investigation.”

In the future, the grand jury says, “we expect that the men and women of the Pittsburgh Police Department will follow the protocols adopted, rather than putting up unnecessary roadblocks at the behest of Union leadership.”

The report makes 10 recommendations. Among them, that the bureau review its existing internal policy to make it “abundantly clear” that officers involved in critical incidents – including those that involve the discharge of a weapon or injury – know their rights independent of FOP advice, and asks all officers to re-train on Miranda and Garrity rights, which cover self-incrimination.

Future obstruction or interference by the FOP or any individual office will be reviewed for criminal charges by the DA’s office or by the U.S. Attorney, according to the report.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto released a statement following the grand jury report, saying his administration fully cooperated with the grand jury investigation, “and was pleased with the Grand Jury’s findings that the City’s move to engage the Allegheny County Police Department to oversee independent investigations of police shooting incidents has made great strides in addressing such matters.”  

Peduto said “many” of the grand jury’s ten recommendations “were already implemented by the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police before the report was issued.”

Peduto went on to say, “Claims in the Grand Jury’s report about Police Bureau command staff ‘passivity’ at critical incident scenes before the MOU was implemented – when the investigations were then overseen by the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office – are addressed in the Bureau’s answer to the report. It must be noted that at any time the supervising detectives from the District Attorney’s office could have intervened to stop the FOP President’s interference at the scenes, but did not do so.”

The police bureau’s response to the grand jury report indicated that while the bureau supports of many of the grand jury recommendations, it disagreed with the claim that the command staff passively stood by or that the DA’s detectives put them “on notice” that Swartzwelder “was preventing them from carrying out their duties.”

WESA's legal analyst David Harris is an endowed professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh. He calls this report a shot across the bow.

“I think what the grand jury is saying is that it saw the behavior at these critical incidents to be not zealous representation by a union officer, but behavior that came perilously close to obstructing an investigation,” said Harris.

“The really unusual thing is that this was written at all,” he said. “It takes to task not only the conduct of the head of the union in very specific ways – nearly accusing him of obstructing justice with a criminal charge – but it takes on the top brass of a police department and finds fault with them, too. I can't think of another situation where an official body or another public agency has taken on both of those things and basically said 'Don't do these things again. We are watching you.'"