By Kris B. Mamula
The U.S. Department of Justice has quietly begun a preliminary investigation into alleged civil rights violations by Pittsburgh police and city's failure to curb such abuses, several sources told the Tribune-Review.
The probe, which has been active for several months, has included interviews with at least 50 victims of alleged police abuse and their attorneys and requests for scores of court records involving police brutality and thousands of pages of secret police disciplinary files.
Attorney Kathleen Spurgeon said she was interviewed by three Justice Department investigators last week.
"What the city is doing is wrong, and they know it's wrong," Spurgeon said Tuesday. "It's impossible for the city not to know (the federal probe) is going on."
Spurgeon said she was questioned about three cases that allege the use of excessive force and abuse of authority by police, but declined to discuss details of the interview. ....
Deputy Mayor Sal Sirabella, who oversees police operations as acting assistant director of public safety, said he would no longer publicly discuss police issues because of pending litigation.
"There's so much flying around here," he said. "I'm just not going to talk about it. I'm sure this will all go to court some day." ....
Such investigations are under way in Los Angeles in the wake of the Rodney King beating, and in new Orleans.
Although the Justice Department's work in Pittsburgh is preliminary, it could lead to a full-scale investigation, several sources said. ....
In a ruling against the city last week in a 1993 police brutality case, the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals described Pittsburgh's system of investigating police misconduct as "nothing more than a facade to cover the violent behavioral patterns of police officers."
Monday, Barron said the city had not yet decided whether to appeal the decision.
Despite the ruling, and a raft of verdicts against the city since January, Murphy has insisted there has been no breakdown in supervision or discipline within the 1,000 officer bureau.
The intervention of the Justice Department was requested las fall by state Rep. William Robinson, D-Hill District. In June, Robinson was notified by letter that the civil rights division of the Justice Department was considering his request for an investigation. ....
Marshall "Smokey" Hynes, president of the Fort Pitt Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, said... it was proof the city did not need the civilian-police oversight board under consideration by council.
A federal investigation, he said, is "one of the checks in the system."