By Annette Dashofy
This week was our final Citizens’ Police Academy class. I don’t think it has sunk in yet that our group’s time together is almost over. We’re a diverse bunch with a variety of motives for taking the course, but we’ve all bonded over the experience.
Our last class was another two-parter. For the first hour, we listened to Sgt. Keith Nemeth and Detective Sheila Jeffries talk about the Office of Municipal Investigations (OMI). This department investigates complaints against Pittsburgh city employees and handles each investigation as if it were a homicide. They are fact finders. They do not recommend discipline. That is ultimately up to Chief Nate Harper.
On an average, OMI investigates 300-500 cases per year with the bulk of those cases being police department related.
Here’s an example of how it works. Mrs. Jones files a complaint stating that Officer Smith called her foul name and then hit her in the nose. Investigators would look at photos taken of Mrs. Jones after the incident to see if there was indeed evidence of injury. They would also search for and interview third party witnesses. These witnesses need to be impartial. In other words, if Mrs. Jones’ son vouches that the officer hit his mother in the nose, he might be saying what his mother WANTS him to say. Or if Officer Smith’s partner says, no, that it never happened, he might be standing up for his partner. So OMI would continue to seek out some other witness. If no other witness can be found and the preponderance of evidence neither supports nor disavows the claims, the case may be left as “unresolved.” Such cases remain in the database for the officer’s entire career.
OMI also looks at patterns of complaints. They may learn that Mrs. Jones has filed similar complaints against Officers Starsky and Hutch in past years, too. OR they may learn that Officer Smith has had previous complaints about calling suspects names and punching them in the nose. All this factors into their report.
Cases ultimately fall into one of five catagories: Sustained, unresolved, exonerated, unfounded, or closed. Only about 5 to 10 percent of all the cases end up as sustained and some of those are technical violations. For example, our Officer Smith has used OC spray on a suspect from a distance closer than three feet during a struggle. In such a case, he did indeed violate procedure, but it was justified.
Remember, OMI does not recommend discipline. They only file the report. Chief Harper then determines what should be done, be it retraining, punishment, or firing.
The second half of this week’s class dealt with Pittsburgh’s newest division: THE GRAFFITI SQUAD. Consisting of three detectives (Frank Rende, Alfonzo Sloane, and Dan Sullivan, all of whom spoke to our class), this group has only been inexistence since November 2006. Since then they have made 38 arrests while blazing new territory in the investigation of graffiti.
Only about 10 % of this graffiti is gang related. It’s vandalism. New ordinances have recently been implemented in Pittsburgh to make life harder on the “taggers.” You must be 18 or older to buy paint or markers in the city and if you buy it and give it to a juvenile, it’s legally the same as giving them a beer. Local judges are cracking down. For instance, take the case of Danny Montano. This graffiti tagger has been held in jail for seven months already and will likely serve a lot more time. He is scheduled to be sentenced on July 24. You can bet a lot of these graffiti artists are watching this case.
Our three graffiti-busting detectives obviously love their jobs. They haven’t lost a case yet, mainly because they collect an overwhelming amount of evidence. They now have a graffiti database where they store photographs of various tags. So while a tagger might be busted in one municipality for one tag, the graffiti squad marches out photographs of forty more from other communities. Most of those arrested plea out or confess.
And they’ve never had a warrant contested, although they admit, they know it will happen.
Bottom line: graffiti artists are not welcome in Pittsburgh. While we were once known as a Mecca for these taggers, the welcome mat has been rolled up. Detectives Frank, Al, and Dan are on the job.
Advice for those of you who are Pittsburgh residents: if you are the victim of graffiti, call 9-1-1. That is the start of the process. These detectives, with the help of some very hard line judges, are determined to clean up the city and send these artists packing.
Next week: GRADUATION