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Pittsburgh Police Bureau Has No Formal Policy For Undercover Officers Drinking On The Job

Megan Harris
90.5 WESA

The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police said it is conducting an internal investigation of policies around drinking alcohol while doing undercover police work. According to the city’s open records officer, no formal policy currently exists.

In November, WESA submitted a Right to Know request, asking for “records reflecting the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police’s policy for officers doing undercover work regarding consuming alcohol and/or other drugs while on the job. Training materials provided to officers doing undercover work regarding consuming alcohol and/or other drugs while on the job.”

In a December letter, Open Records Officer Celia B. Liss wrote, “I have determined that the City is not in possession of the requested records.”

Police spokesperson Chris Togneri did not confirm the absence of a policy but wrote in an e-mail that “an in-depth internal investigation is currently being conducted as to the existing policies and the need for additional policies regarding the undercover program.”

Attorneys for members of the Pagans motorcycle club allege that four Pittsburgh police officers were drunk when they got into a physical altercation with their clients at a South Side bar in October. Four members of the motorcycle club were initially charged with aggravated assault, conspiracy and riot; those charges were later withdrawn by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala.

Seton Hill University criminal justice professor Shavonne Arthurs said it’s common for departments not to have specific policies with regard to undercover officers consuming alcohol.

“You have to do what is necessary to accomplish the task at hand. So if that includes drinking then it includes drinking,” Arthurs said. “That’s how a lot of policies are written: very vague.”

Arthurs said she’s also heard of police departments having policies that set out a two-drink maximum for undercover officers.

“Those police officers [were] there for like a five hour period … clearly the two-drink policy wouldn’t have worked for that situation,” she said.

Former FBI agent and LaRoche College professor Bill Crowley said the nature of undercover work makes developing a specific policy very difficult.

“It’s really not something you can write a book and script out what someone’s going to have,” he said. “[In] these types of circumstances you really have to give the officers a lot of discretion because there’s a lot of unknowns.”

However, Crowley said the FBI provides undercover agents considerable training on decision-making, and that police departments would be well advised to do the same.

“There’s normally a very specific objective to achieve, and then you try to plan out what possible scenarios are,” he said.

Experts said it might be entirely appropriate for officers to consume alcohol in the course of investigations, particularly with regards to the sale and trafficking of illegal drugs. 

“When you’re [doing] undercover work, when you’re dealing with drugs, alcohol spots are going to be a large part of what you’re doing,” Arthurs said.

The Trib reported that the undercover officers were investigating a drug complaint at the bar at the time.

Arthurs said departments should provide undercover officers with strategies for keeping their cover intact in such situations. For example, officers can clue the bartender in to what they’re doing and order drinks that look alcoholic but are not, such as tonic water with lime. They can also order beer in cans so no one will know how much beer they have left or the pace at which they are drinking.

“If they have to be in a bar where business is done, they have to be around people where alcohol use is taking place and everyone is engaging in that and it would be atypical for a person not to, that’s one thing,” said University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris. “But it can’t be that they are just allowed to do it because they are undercover.”

Harris said departments must have an explicit policy if they are to hold officers accountable for their actions.

“When things go terribly wrong you have no way to say that something was done that was incorrect or to impose any discipline, because you don’t have a policy for it,” he said.

Fraternal Order of Police president Robert Swartzwelder said if the bureau truly lacks such a policy, it has no authority to discipline the four officers involved in the incident.

Liz Reid began working at WESA in 2013 as a general assignment reporter and weekend host. Since then, she’s worked as the Morning Edition producer, health & science reporter and as an editor.
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