‘A total disgrace:’ Police review board report on Pittsburgh bar fight paints troubling picture

(Pittsburgh) — A new report from Pittsburgh’s Citizens Police Review Board paints a troubling picture of the behavior of four undercover officers during and after an incident at Kopy’s Bar on the South Side in 2018.

According to the report, released Tuesday, Detectives David Honick, Brian Burgunder, David Lincoln and Brian Martin consumed dozens of alcoholic drinks — ranging from 7 to 19 each — while surveilling an individual they believed to be involved in the drug trade. The officers remained at the bar after the target of their operation left, and they later got into a fight with members of the Pagans motorcycle club who were also at the bar that night.

“When they determined that the subject was not going to return to the bar because he had left, the officers should have just gotten up and left. They didn’t,” said Beth Pittinger, executive director of the CPRB. “They were preparing to leave, but the members of the Pagans motorcycle club walked in, so they decided to stay.”

By deciding to stay and surveil the Pagans, the officers violated department policy, essentially launching a new investigation without proper oversight, Pittinger said. According to the report, the detectives and the Pagans interacted several times that evening. Initially interactions were friendly: Just before midnight, Honick bought shots for two of the club members. Tensions escalated during the next hour, in part, Pittinger said, because the detectives apparently believed their cover to be blown.

“There was an assumption made that one of the patrons had — or I don’t even know if this is accurate … it’s still a bit elusive to me — that a patron had disclosed to the Pagans that the four detectives were actually police officers,” Pittinger said.

In fact, both the criminal complaint filed after the arrest of the four Pagans and testimony of those involved confirm that it was Detective Martin himself who revealed that he and his companions were undercover officers, according to the report.

The report notes significant discrepancies between video footage and the complaint. While the complaint suggests that Detective Martin was seeking to de-escalate the situation between the two parties, the report describes his behavior as “increasingly aggressive.” Additionally, the complaint alleges that one of the men, Frank Deluca, had reached for a gun during the altercation; this is also disputed by the CPRB report, based on the review of video evidence. During the two-minute melee, officers punched Deluca 26 times before he was arrested, the report concludes. Deluca and others were also hit with pepper spray by uniformed officers arriving on the scene later.

Pittinger said the detectives violated a number of other department policies, including compromising undercover operations by revealing their identities. Department policy also requires that officers conduct themselves in a manner that is “not detrimental to the reputation or good name of the Bureau of Police,” and not be impaired by drugs or alcohol while on duty.

That last bit is hard to prove, said Pittinger, despite video evidence that the detectives drank heavily that night. At the time, the department had no policy around alcohol consumption during undercover operations, and it still does not evaluate officers for impairment before and after such assignments (such a policy is under consideration).

All in all, Pittinger said, it was one of the worst displays of police conduct she has reviewed in 21 years as a law enforcement watchdog.

“The bullying, the nonsense, the immaturity … it was a total disgrace,” she said.

Charges against the four motorcyclists were later dropped by District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. Additionally, Zappala has ordered that the four detectives not be allowed to testify in cases unless their testimony is corroborated by other officers. Pittinger said that should be grounds for removal from the force. Instead, the detectives have been reassigned.

Neither Fraternal Order of Police President Robert Swartzwelder nor the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police responded to requests for comment.

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