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Pittsburgh police recruit — once a wanted man in Mass. — fired

| Friday, May 9, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Pittsburgh police on Thursday terminated a recruit who passed a background check even though he was wanted in Massachusetts on a decade-old felony arrest warrant.

Elijah Hill, 36, of Crafton Heights said he moved to Pittsburgh to begin 11 months of training as a police recruit on March 17, but when he tried to buy his service weapon two weeks later, a gun store employee ran a state-required background check and told him he was denied. He said he immediately told a sergeant at the training academy, who found the 2002 arrest warrant filed in Essex County. Hill said he didn't know about the warrant.

“It never came up through the background investigation,” Hill said. “I did everything right, I believe.”

The oversight in Hill's case reveals a gap in the city's background check process that can allow someone with a criminal history to slip through, even though city investigators say they review local, state and federal records as part of the recruit vetting process.

Public safety spokeswoman Sonya Toler declined comment.

In April 2002, Beverly, Mass., police charged Hill with two misdemeanor counts of violating a restraining order and one felony count of witness intimidation, said Carrie Kimball Monahan, spokeswoman for the Essex County District Attorney. He is accused of emailing threats to a woman who obtained the restraining order against him. A judge in Salem District Court arraigned Hill on the charges on April 4. He has a hearing scheduled May 27.

“The hope is the matter will be resolved, and he will be able to move on with his career in law enforcement,” Hill's attorney, Patrick Regan, said. “Here's a guy who has lived his life well, and they considered him a good candidate.”

Recruits earn $14.24 an hour, according to the city's 2014 budget. They spend about eight months in the training academy and three months in field training. Officials put him on unpaid leave when they learned of the warrant. Acting Chief Regina McDonald fired him on Thursday. Pittsburgh's department has 887 officers, including the recruit class of 52.

Military records indicate Hill served in the Army from August 1997 to August 2001, and again from December 2003 through March 2005. Regan said he also served in the National Guard and the Army Reserve.

Deborah Walker, manager of the Office of Municipal Investigations, referred comment to mayoral spokesman Tim McNulty. OMI employees conducting background checks of prospective city workers examine local, state and federal criminal records, civil records, driving records, child support payments, credit checks, protection from abuse orders and residency, McNulty said.

“A sergeant at the training academy found (the warrant) within five minutes,” Hill said. “It's a yearlong process for me to apply. If they had found it a year ago, it could've been over and done with. I could've cleared myself, and I could be a police officer. The fact that OMI didn't find it just baffles me, but it's not just the city. The military didn't find it, either.”

McNulty said that with new management in place at OMI, all procedures are under review.

Mayor Bill Peduto named Walker head of that office in February. McNulty also pointed to information from the FBI that says databases checked by firearms licensees might have more information than those checked by law enforcement.

“It's commonly documented there's some disconnect between the system gun stores use and the one law enforcement uses,” McNulty said. “For whatever reason, sometimes an information gap exists between the gun store system and the one law enforcement uses.”

Crafton police Chief Mark Sumpter said his office gave Pittsburgh information last fall about its arrest of Hill in August 2010 on charges of simple assault and providing false identification to law enforcement. The charges were withdrawn. According to the criminal complaint, Hill's wife told police he grabbed her hand and made her hit herself in the face. When police contacted Hill, he told them the police are “a bunch of gun-toting idiots,” the complaint said. Sumpter said he was surprised to learn the city had Hill as a recruit.

“I would move to have someone disqualified for that,” Sumpter said.

Hill said he was being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder at the time of that arrest but stands by the comment about police.

“It's one of the motivating factors with me getting on there,” Hill said. “I think a lot of guys get on there, and then they lose their minds.”

Margaret Harding is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-380-8519 or mharding@tribweb.com.

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