Citizens board: Video backs cop in Steelers’ coach arrest
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Surveillance video supports a police officer’s version of the arrest of Pittsburgh Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter, including that Porter briefly grabbed the officer’s wrists, the head of the city’s Citizen Police Review Board said Wednesday.
A county prosecutor has said the video doesn’t support prosecuting the most serious criminal charges against Porter — including aggravated assault — for allegedly grabbing Officer Paul Abel’s wrists. A spokesman said Wednesday the prosecutor is sticking by that assessment.
Elizabeth Pittinger, the executive director of the review board, said she was assessing Abel’s truthfulness and conduct, not the prosecutor’s. The review board investigates allegations of police misconduct, but its findings and disciplinary recommendations are non-binding.
“The officer wrote a probable cause affidavit based on what he experienced and observed and what I was concerned about was the veracity of that probable cause affidavit and the way he conducted himself,” Pittinger said.
Porter was arrested and briefly jailed late Jan. 8 when he reportedly scuffled with a bouncer who wouldn’t let him into a bar, and then Officer Abel, hours after the team’s playoff victory over Miami.
In Pennsylvania, even minor physical contact with an officer can be charged as aggravated assault. Porter also was charged with simple assault against the bouncer, defiant trespass and resisting arrest, along with citations for disorderly conduct and public drunkenness.
Four days later, District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. said he’d drop all but the citations based on his review of the surveillance video. The decision angered Abel and police brass, who have steadfastly defended him.
On Wednesday, Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich issued a statement saying, “we have not wavered in support of Officer Abel’s actions in the arrest of Joey Porter and the filing of initial charges.”
The video won’t be released because the investigation is continuing, Hissrich said.
St. Vincent College law professor Bruce Antkowiak, a former prosecutor, said Pittinger’s findings don’t necessarily contradict Zappala’s decision to drop the most serious charges.
“For a prosecutor, this is not an academic matter,” Antkowiak said. “This is not a matter of weighing, technically speaking, whether (Porter’s) actions meet the literal language of the assault statute. You have to make a practical assessment of whether you have a reasonable likelihood of a conviction.”
That was unlikely since Porter, by all accounts, grabbed Abel’s wrists for a few seconds and didn’t attack the officer, Antkowiak said.
The review board investigated the arrest because of Porter’s high-profile status and Abel’s past, Pittinger said.
Abel allegedly pistol-whipped and shot a man while off duty in 2008, claiming the man walked up to his car at a red light and punched him. Abel was acquitted of drunken driving, aggravated assault and reckless endangerment charges, and the city paid $44,500 to settle a lawsuit filed by the man Abel shot. Abel’s firing was overturned by a labor arbitrator.
On Wednesday, Porter’s defense attorney Robert Del Greco, stressed that Porter didn’t complain about Abel’s conduct or request the review board investigation.
“Our concern is whether or not there’s criminality on Joey Porter’s part, and the review board conclusion is irrelevant to that proposition,” Del Greco said.
Porter faces a hearing Feb. 21 on the remaining citations, which each carry fines up to $500 and 90 days in jail.