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Talks delay police trials

| Monday, June 17, 2002, 12:00 p.m.

Negotiations are under way to end a 1996 lawsuit filed by dozens of people and several community groups that accused Pittsburgh police and city officials of wholesale misconduct and led to sweeping reforms and federal oversight of the department.

"Settlement discussions are ongoing," said Witold J. "Vic" Walczak, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Pittsburgh. "There is no date set for more trials."

In January, U.S. District Judge Robert J. Cindrich split a 1996 lawsuit filed by the ACLU, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and 66 people — most of them black — against city police and officials into 43 separate cases with the goal of trying them all by year's end.

Five cases have been tried and six others were dropped voluntarily by the plaintiffs, Walczak said. Thirty-two cases are unresolved.

Neither Walczak nor City Solicitor Jacqueline Morrow would comment on why they are trying to settle out-of-court. Earlier negotiations stalled when at least a dozen plaintiffs declined to settle.

In the first five trials, three ended with verdicts for the plaintiffs and two in favor of the police. In the first plaintiff verdict, the jury awarded $3,000, but the two later verdicts produced no damages for the plaintiffs.

Rhonda Thomas May, 41, of Munhall, won her case, but the jury awarded no damages. A jury said police violated her civil rights when they scuffled with her at the South Side police precinct in April 1994 after she went there for help retrieving her niece's stolen jacket.

"It's like I lost. I didn't get money or an apology. There's no gratification," she said.

May said a law should be enacted that sets a minimum fine against police officers who violate someone's civil rights.

"At this rate the cops know they won't have to pay anything. What's to stop them• They don't even have to pay for their attorneys," she said.

The original lawsuit produced a federal consent decree that put the police department under the oversight of the U.S. Department of Justice. Morrow said the Justice Department is ready to release the local police department from the decree, but federal oversight would continue for the city office that investigates allegations of misconduct against policemen. Morrow said the Office of Municipal Investigations has a backlog of complaints.

The Justice Department did not return calls for comment.

Walczak said oversight of city police may not end as quickly as Morrow would like.

"I don't think it's a done deal. If it is, the ACLU and the NAACP will be objecting because you simply can't reward the city for the massive failures at OMI."

The Justice Department negotiated the consent decree with the city after finding a pattern of excessive force by police since at least 1990. The decree required the city to enact reforms and a system to track citizen complaints.

Morrow said the department is satisfied that the police department has complied with the decree. However, she said, the Justice Department is concerned that a backlog of citizen complaints lodged with the Office of Municipal Investigations could affect the police department's ability to evaluate officers.

"(Justice) didn't have any concerns about the police bureau," Morrow said. "But they want to evaluate the backlog's impact on employee evaluation."

Federal oversight had been set to expire in April, however, federal officials are waiting for at least two more audits to monitor the city's progress, Morrow said.

Past audits show the police department in full compliance with the decree since August 1999, but have raised concerns about the backlog at the investigations office.

The decree would lift federal oversight if the city had been in full compliance for two consecutive years by the end of April 2002. Falling out of compliance extends the decree for at least two years.

Morrow said the backlog is less than 200 now, down from a high of 600.

"Our goal is to erase the backlog by the end of the year," Morrow said.

The NAACP said the bureau has improved, but the decree should stay in place.

"We begin to weaken the consent decree when we weaken the commitment to do what needs to be done," said Tim Stevens, president of the Pittsburgh branch of the NAACP.

Police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr. said it's time to lift the decree..

"It would be in the best interest of the Justice Department to release the police bureau," McNeilly said. "There would be less resistance in other cities to introduce a consent decree if those cities realize we were released after the time limits that were established from the beginning."

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