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Federal jury sides with city in police road-rage trial

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Monday, March 25, 2013, 10:36 a.m.
 

The city of Pittsburgh is not liable for the actions of a former police officer who attacked a Squirrel Hill man and damaged his car in a road-rage incident, a federal jury decided Monday.

The city fired then-Detective Bradley Walker, who was off duty during the May 1, 2010, incident, because of his assault on Jarret Fate, 32.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl couldn't be reached for comment on the verdict.

“We never thought he was acting as a policeman. He wasn't,” Assistant Chief George Trosky said. “It was the right verdict.”

Joshua Autry, Fate's lawyer, said his client would appeal U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab's ruling that the jury first had to find that Walker acted as an officer before it could decide whether the city bears responsibility for keeping Walker on the force despite a history of violent actions.

“They are responsible for causing harm to the citizens of Pittsburgh,” Autry said.

Fate said the trial helped expose the inept handling of citizen complaints against the police.

“I'm happy that we shed more light on my situation,” he said. “There's still more to expose.”

Schwab last week dismissed Trosky and former police Chief Nathan Harper as defendants in the lawsuit, saying evidence showed they were not responsible for Walker's actions.

The judge ruled that city regulations and the police union contract effectively keep police brass from punishing officers unless the Office of Municipal Investigations sustains a citizen's complaint against the officer. Few of the investigations resulted in sustained complaints.

David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor, said the lawsuit and one last summer involving a police brutality complaint by a Homewood man cost the city the public's confidence even though verdicts, so far, favored the city and the police.

“Being found not liable isn't the same thing as saying everything is working well, and the public is left with the impression of an operation that is not functioning correctly,” he said.

“If the city is smart about this, they'll take these cases as an opportunity to ask how their processes for handling complaints can be improved before they start losing the cases.”

Bruce Antkowiak, a St. Vincent College law professor, said a lack of response by the city sets it up for having to pay larger damages if it loses a case.

“That could be a real compounding factor in the next civil case that comes along,” he said.

Beth Pittinger, executive director of the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board, said the cases have highlighted problems with the system used to investigate and discipline officers who cross the line.

In an unrelated case, a federal grand jury on Friday accused Harper of diverting money from the police department for his personal use and failing to file income tax returns. Schwab polled the jurors before they resumed deliberations Monday to make sure that case would not influence their decision.

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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