Pittsburgh cops OK'd to work at troubled taverns
A South Side bar that paid off-duty Pittsburgh officers cash to provide security was the scene of a fight so large in October 2012 that on-duty police had to use pepper spray for crowd control.
Problems at Levelz Sports Lounge on East Carson Street during about two years included an attempted murder, thefts, fights, an indecent assault and drugs — so many crimes that a police commander urged the Allegheny County district attorney to shut it down as a nuisance bar. In 33 incidents that prosecutors later cited in a petition to close Levelz, off-duty officers filed incident reports in at least a third of them.
Moonlighting officers worked at a Larimer bar where a man was murdered in May 2012. And off-duty cops were outside a private Squirrel Hill club in December during a raid by state liquor control officers searching for illegal after-hours alcohol sales, a Tribune-Review investigation found.
Cities such as Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit prohibit officers from moonlighting at businesses that primarily serve alcohol. In Pittsburgh, off-duty police regularly moonlight at bars — even those with repeated legal problems, liquor law citations and building code violations, the Trib found.
What's more, Pittsburgh police set their off-duty cash payment rates — with little oversight —until a money scandal led to the federal conviction of ex-police Chief Nate Harper.
Sgt. Stephen Matakovich, who scheduled off-duty officers to work outside Levelz and occasionally worked there, told the Trib he tried to get the owner to address problems.
“It's not up to me to make sure they have the occupancy correct or they're not over-serving people,” Matakovich said. “But if three to four days in a row, people are being carried out of a bar and vomiting on the sidewalk, then I talk to the manager.”
The bar reached an agreement with District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. to close for at least a year after he went to court to shutter the business because of a stabbing in July and other incidents.
Drew Ziccardi, one of the bar's four owners, said Levelz hired officers as a deterrent to problems that happened anyway.
“They said, ‘We're still police officers. If we see something, we have to do something,' ” Ziccardi recalled.
Question of conflict
Though Levelz was an extreme case, off-duty city officers work at more than two dozen places that accrued 41 liquor code enforcement citations over the past five years for serving minors, staying open late and breaking other state drinking laws.
Separately, city inspectors cited eight venues that employ police officers for violations such as overcrowding and blocked exits.
Zappala's spokesman, Mike Manko, said authorities encourage troubled bars to hire off-duty police.
The city's policy requiring payments for off-duty work through the city should alleviate any perceived conflict of interest, Manko said. He said Zappala thinks “the benefits of having a uniformed officer working security at these establishments far outweighs the potential for a conflict.”
Regardless of how a bar with problems pays police officers, it can cause the public to wonder about divided loyalties between two employers, said Jonathan Jacobs, director of the Institute of Criminal Justice Ethics at John Jay College in New York City.
“There certainly could appear to be a conflict of interest, and that appearance on its own is potentially problematic,” Jacobs said. “In situations such as that, almost inevitably, you have to explain why this is OK, because the surface appearances lend themselves to questions that it's not OK.”
Even police recognize the potential problems. Acting Chief Regina McDonald said the bureau requires bars to list any violations on their application to hire off-duty officers.
“That was one concern — were these officers becoming too close to the employers? There's a fine line there, and that's why we monitor them to make sure we maintain control of our secondary employers,” McDonald said.
Pittsburgh secondary employment records obtained under the state's Right to Know Law show that even when bars listed violations on applications, they were approved for details.
McDonald said she has not denied any bars the use of off-duty officers, but added that the bureau pays close attention to nuisance bars.
“Whenever we've had situations with bars on the list,” she said, “many times they've asked to keep officers just to reduce the potential for violence.”
The pay rate for off-duty city officers can range from $30.68 per hour to $56.96 per hour, depending on rank.
Bar owners know the officers they hire must uphold their sworn duties, said attorney Charles Caputo, who has represented Levelz and other bars. Police often testify in cases involving their secondary employers.
“If they see something up the street or down the block, they have to act the same way as if they're on duty,” Caputo said.
Detective John McBurney, of the city's nuisance bar task force, points out that at some bars, “if you don't have an officer there, you're going to have a lot of problems.”
In May 2012, several Pittsburgh officers were working outside the then-Trapper's Club on Hamilton Avenue in Larimer when one person was shot inside and a man fleeing the gunfire was killed outside, Zone 5 police Cmdr. Timothy O'Connor said.
Officer Kevin Kenney, who schedules the details at the club, said he and six other officers worked on the night of the shooting.
“We saw a stampede of people running, saying, ‘There's a shooting upstairs,' ” Kenney said. “So that drew us inside, and then there was another shooting outside.”
Kenney said the off-duty detail helps Zone 5 by handling incidents around the club. A moonlighting cop arrested Torrell Jones, 24, and Jerrell Prince, 29, when he found guns and drugs in their car near the club in March, Kenney said. The two pleaded guilty to federal firearms charges.
“As bad as things are at bars and clubs, it would be worse if we weren't there,” Kenney said. “We're not the bad guys. We're out there helping people, saving lives.”
Michael Hudock, an attorney for Greater Pittsburgh Social Club, which operates the Larimer bar, declined to comment, as did an attorney for Lequisha Williams, the property owner. O'Connor said the bar closed a VIP entrance after the shootings and hasn't had problems under its new name, Serenity.
When state Liquor Control Enforcement officers shut down unlicensed booze sales at the Irish Centre in Squirrel Hill in December, they encountered two off-duty Pittsburgh police officers working outside. The club requires renters to pay for the officers to deter crime, president Jim Graven said.
“I do believe the police bring a sense of safety,” he said.
Officer Gary Rupert, who schedules officers to work at the Irish Centre, said they deal with parking issues, break up fights and make sure everyone leaves safely.
“If we see some problem, we deal with it,” he said.
Jobs help pay bills
According to a city report, Matakovich earned $18,662 from off-duty work in 2013. Kenney earned $8,239, and Rupert earned $2,074. Those figures are from secondary employers who paid through the city's payroll system.
For most of last year, however, businesses could pay moonlighting officers in cash without reporting it to the city. The Irish Centre and the Trapper's Club paid Rupert and Kenney, respectively, in cash, documents show.
Matakovich, a patrol sergeant in the police district that includes South Side, said he sees his role as a manager of sorts when he works off-duty with bars.
“You try to do everything you can to keep them in compliance,” Matakovich said, “but there are times you get into an argument and you say, ‘Listen, you do this or face the consequences.' ”
Matakovich said he contacted the Nuisance Bar Task Force when one bar at Station Square refused to turn down its music, leading to a citation. He arrested the manager of a South Side bar when the man punched a patron officers had escorted outside.
“I'm not there for the bar,” Matakovich said. “… It pays the bills. But I'm not going to do something underhanded or crooked that compromises my integrity.”