September 17, 2014

Pay Daze

Chris Young, Pittsburgh City Paper—Thanks to an agreement worked out between the city and the police union, three officers under investigation for allegedly beating a Homewood teen are getting paid overtime without ever setting foot on the streets or buckling into a patrol car — and that may continue for a while.

Officers Richard Ewing, Michael Saldutte and David Sisak were placed on paid administrative leave in February following their controversial Jan. 12 arrest of 18-year-old then-CAPA High School student Jordan Miles, who has accused the officers of attacking him without cause. But while the three officers enjoy extended vacations, the city has ensured that their wallets are at least as fat as they were when the officers were actually working.

A City Paper analysis of public pay records has found that, from February to June, officers Ewing, Saldutte and Sisak have so far taken home $27,289, $29,570 and $32,465, respectively. And the officers could be entitled to even more remuneration.

“It strikes me as ridiculous,” says Tim Stevens, chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project. “It seems like an insult to the citizens.”

The officers have been bringing home these checks for nearly eight months now — and with the city’s investigation at a standstill, there is no end in sight.

“The city is dragging its feet,” says Beth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizens Police Review Board. “Why is [the investigation] taking so long and costing so much money for the taxpayers?”

Officers Ewing, Saldutte and Sisak have a reputation as three of the city’s best cops. Police officials have stressed the significance of the officers’ success at getting guns off city streets. The police union, according to a Feb. 8 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story, credited the three officers with making nearly 20 percent of the city’s illegal firearms arrests.

While Miles has claimed that the officers beat him without cause, the officers have argued differently.

As part of an anti-gun task force, the officers have maintained they saw Miles sneaking around a house on Tioga Street with a heavy object in his coat that appeared to be a gun. The criminal complaint said the teen ran from the officers after they told him to stop and proceeded to assault the officers as they tried to arrest him.

Miles, who has said the officers never identified themselves, was charged with aggravated assault and resisting arrest. A district judge dismissed the charges on March 4.

On Feb. 1, shortly after headlines about the case appeared, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl put the officers on administrative leave. But judging from the pay arrangement agreed to by the city and the Fraternal Order of Police, there’s little reason for the officers to complain about it.

In fact, some of their paychecks have been larger than the ones they brought home prior to the Miles incident. For example, pay records reviewed by CP show that Ewing (before taxes) earned $3,689 in his March 12 check — $524 more than what he averaged before he was placed on leave, according to CP calculations. On three occasions each for Ewing and Sisak, and on one for Saldutte, between February and June, not working paid better than being on the job.

How can that be?

In Ewing’s case, his March 12 check was bolstered mostly by 28.5 hours of “court premium” pay, earning him $1,154 on top of his $2,159 base pay.

According to FOP attorney Bryan Campbell, Ewing, Saldutte and Sisak are assured of receiving their base salaries and court premiums for testifying in court about arrests made prior to the Miles incident. Police on active duty receive overtime pay — at time-and-a-half — for time spent in court when those hours are in addition to the regular duties of their normal 40-hour work week. But although the officers in the Miles case currently have no regular duties, they are receiving the overtime pay rate as well.

“If you’re going to put them on administrative leave, they should be entitled to those other payments,” Campbell says. “Otherwise, you’re punishing them.”

And, as he explains, the officers are innocent until proven guilty. “The perception is — and this is wrong — that administrative leave is punishment,” he says. “Why would you punish somebody even before you know what the facts are?”

Still, Pittinger says the officers should not be receiving overtime pay for appearing in court, because they have no regular duties at the regular pay rate.

“They’re not working,” she stresses.

In most cases, though, the officers are not making as much money on leave as they were when they were on the job. Even so, the officers still can’t lose: In the future, taxpayers may be cutting them more paychecks — to make up the difference, and to compensate the officers for overtime they haven’t done at all.

According to Campbell, shortly after the three were placed on leave, the FOP filed a grievance arguing that the officers should be entitled to receive the same amount of money they earned when they were working full duty, including court and overtime pay.

The city, Campbell says, agreed. In settling the dispute, he says the city decided to calculate each officer’s average earnings for the six months before they were placed on leave. Both sides agreed that the officers must make at least what they previously averaged in each paycheck.

When the administrative leave ends, Campbell says, the city will go back and see how their leave pay, including base salary and court time, compares to the officers’ previous average. If their leave pay exceeds their previous average, the officers get to keep everything they earned. But if it’s below, he says, “The city will give them a make-up check.”

“The aim of the settlement was to accurately reflect the officers’ rate of pay,” says city Solicitor Daniel Regan. “In light of all applicable law, that’s what the city is supposed to do.”

Lawyers for each of the three officers could not be reached for comment by press time.

CP has reviewed the pay records for the three officers from June 2009 to June 2010. From August 2009 to January 2010, the six-month period immediately before they were placed on leave, Ewing averaged $3,165 per paycheck; Saldutte earned $3,505, and Sisak made $3,961. (CP considers these calculations estimates because it is unclear which six months the city used to determine the officers’ previous salary averages.)

In his June 4 check, Saldutte earned $2,414 (before taxes) — $1,091 less than he averaged before.

Overall, Saldutte earned less than his six-month average on eight occasions, and both Ewing and Sisak earned less on six occasions each.

By CP’s calculation, from February to June, the city owes Ewing $4,357, Saldutte $5,478 and Sisak $7,142 to help match what the officers were earning when they were actually out patrolling the streets.

“Oh my goodness,” says Pittinger. “That’s a sweet deal.

“This is outrageous for the city to administer employment like this,” she continues. “It’s terrible.”

“I don’t know what to say about this,” says David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who specializes in police issues. “It’s very peculiar.”

Still, he says, both the police union and angry citizens “have an argument to make.”

After hearing about the pay arrangement for the Jordan Miles officers, Nigel Parry, of the local Alliance for Police Accountability, told CP, “The general feeling is disgust. It’s deeply disturbing.”

“When you have people on [leave] for possibly physically abusing a citizen, that’s a bit hard to digest [for] the average taxpayer,” agrees Stevens, of BPEP. “Even if this is contractually protected, it seems like an abuse of the system.”

And there’s no telling how long the situation will continue. Until the city wraps up its investigation, taxpayers will continue footing the bill for the three officers on paid leave — overtime and all.

While Ravenstahl initially pledged to conclude an investigation by the end of February, the city’s probe has stalled. In March, the Department of Justice confirmed that its civil-rights division had launched its own investigation into the Jan. 12 arrest. Shortly before that, a Western Pennsylvania grand jury issued a subpoena for city records concerning the case.

“It was our advice that a prudent course of action was to keep the [city's] investigation open pending the outcome of the federal investigation,” says Regan. “The federal investigation may reveal new or additional evidence that would benefit our investigation.”

The feds, meanwhile, aren’t setting any deadlines. Xochitl Hinojosa, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, told CP that she could not say how much longer the federal investigation may last. “Our investigation is ongoing,” she says. “We have no further comment at this time.”

City Councilor Patrick Dowd, for one, can’t understand the city’s logic in waiting for the feds. For the benefit of everyone involved, he says the OMI investigation should be considered separately from the federal investigation.

The city’s pay arrangement for the officers on leave “is the cost of not making a decision,” Dowd says. “We are left waiting, and therefore, paying.”

“This is ludicrous,” agrees Pittinger. “It should be over and done with.”

As the investigations continue, Miles’ attorney Kerrington Lewis says Miles is currently preparing to attend his first semester of college at Penn State University.

Meanwhile, the Alliance for Police Accountability is planning a press conference at 11 a.m. on Thu., Aug. 12, outside the Allegheny County Courthouse to demand the prosecution of officers Ewing, Saldutte and Sisak. Following the press conference, says Parry, the group will deliver petitions urging prosecution to Allegheny County District Attorney Steven Zappala.

Stevens says the community is tired of waiting for a resolution to the Miles case, noting that many people are “puzzled” by the drawn-out investigation.

“It’s extremely hard to understand why a case so simple has taken eight months,” he says. In the meantime, “We have these three officers enjoying an extended vacation when people in the community think they should be in jail.”