Pittsburgh wants police vehicle crash reports to remain confidential

Jeremy Boren
| Friday, April 25, 2014, 9:31 p.m.

If an officer damages a Pittsburgh police squad car, boat or bicycle, internal reports about the incident should be kept confidential because they're used to dole out discipline, a city attorney argued in a Downtown courtroom on Friday.

“It is a detailed probe into the officer's conduct as it concerns the police bureau's rules and regulations — that's discipline,” John Doherty, assistant city solicitor, told Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Terrence O'Brien.

Pittsburgh is appealing a state Office of Open Records decision that ordered the city on Nov. 8 to release potentially hundreds of police vehicle crash reports to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. The newspaper in August filed a request under the Right to Know Law seeking copies of reports about police vehicle crashes from 2002 to 2013.

Blank versions of the forms obtained by the Trib request the date, time and location of the crash; whether the officer or someone else was injured and how seriously; and the circumstances of the crash, including whether it involved a high-speed chase, another car, a pedestrian or a stationary object.

The 18-page order from the Office of Open Records permitted the city to redact sections of the forms that let police supervisors recommend “discipline, demotion or discharge” of a police officer. The Right to Know Law allows public agencies to deny requests for records that are part of a noncriminal investigation or part of an employee's personnel file. Pittsburgh's attorneys cited both exemptions in their appeal to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.

In siding with the Trib, Office of Open Records appeals officer Audrey Buglione wrote, “The public has the right to know the fact of the occurrence of a collision of a publicly owned vehicle, who was in control of the vehicle, the extent of damage or injury caused and other basic information regarding the collision.”

Kimberly S. Tague, a lawyer representing the Trib with the Downtown law firm Strassburger McKenna Gutnick & Gefsky, told O'Brien the records are not part of a noncriminal investigation, don't deserve to be part of an employee personnel file and shouldn't be kept secret.

“These forms are filled out as part of routine paperwork as part of the officer's duties at the end of the day,” Tague said. “They've carved out an exception where any record that is completed by the city of Pittsburgh police bureau can be put into a officer's personnel file” and not be released as a public record. “That flies completely in the face of the Right to Know Law.”

Pittsburgh Lt. Ed Trapp, head of police intelligence and planning, testified that the bureau's Collision Review Board scrutinizes 10 to 30 incidents a month. Trapp acknowledged vehicle damage often isn't the officer's fault and no one is punished, as in one case in which road debris struck the rooftop light bar of a police cruiser traveling through the Squirrel Hill Tunnel.

“It was hanging by a wire,” Trapp said.

Bryan Campbell, an attorney for police labor union Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, estimated during court testimony that 20 to 25 percent of disciplinary actions against police officers begin as a recommendation from the board. The union agrees with the city's position that the crash reports should remain confidential.

O'Brien did not rule on the city's appeal, nor did he set a deadline to do so. O'Brien's ruling will be subject to appeal.

Jeremy Boren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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