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Police honored for extra care in toughest cases

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By Margaret Harding
Tuesday, April 17, 2012, 8:42 a.m.

No police officer looks forward to working on child abuse cases, an advocate noted on Monday.

Baldwin police Detective Tony Cortazzo has investigated more than 120 of them in his 17 years with the force.

"They're all challenging in different ways," Cortazzo, 39, said after he and three other people received awards for their work with children. "Whenever you have a victim where the suspect is in the family, those are harder for me to handle."

He recalled a particularly emotional case involving parents who beat their 10-week-old baby and claimed the child had brittle bones. He sought opinions with several doctors before filing charges, which ultimately resulted in the father's guilty plea to aggravated assault.

"We've seen Tony go that extra distance with cases that are very difficult," said Joan Mills, manager of A Child's Place at Mercy, which presented the second annual Above & Beyond Awards Luncheon at LeMont restaurant on Mt. Washington.

"After 20-plus years of doing this work, you start to understand that in the law enforcement world, these are the cases most police detectives don't want," Mills said. "They elicit so much emotion."

Cortazzo received a $1,000 cash award, a plaque and tickets to a Pittsburgh Penguins game for his work.

"These awards are difficult because anytime a law enforcement officer gets an award, it usually means something bad has happened to someone else," Cortazzo said.

A panel of judges gave an award to Allegheny County Police Detective Steve Dish in part for his quick thinking in a courtroom. Dish happened to be in Common Pleas Judge Donna Jo McDaniel's courtroom in October when a suspect set to plead guilty to rape dove at the victim's mother as deputies led him out of the courtroom. Dish jumped in to deflect the man.

"It was just my reaction," said Dish, 50, of Moon. "I didn't want him to get to her."

Dish has been a county police detective for six years; he spent 13 years with Moon police. He handles general investigations, including sex assault cases, and is one of the most aggressive detectives on the force, county police Assistant Superintendent James Morton said.

"I'm not surprised he took the initiative to stop that guy," Morton said.

A Child's Place at Mercy, which conducts specialized interviews of children when authorities suspect abuse or neglect, began awarding police officers and child protective service professionals at a luncheon last year. Jennifer Wright of Beaver County Children and Youth Services, and Tiffani Keirn of the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families, received awards in the child protective services category.

"These are really hard cases for police to do, but I also I think it is the most admirable form of police work," Mills said. "We thought it's time to recognize people in this field."

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