DA restricts future testimony from four Pittsburgh cops involved in bar brawl

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The Allegheny County District Attorney’s office will not accept testimony from the four Pittsburgh police detectives who last year brawled while undercover with members of the Pagans motorcycle club without corroboration from other officers.

The district attorney’s office learned July 31 that Detectives David Honick, Brian Burgunder, David Lincoln and Brian Martin — who had been on paid leave — were reinstated and reassigned from narcotics to the violent crime unit, according to a letter obtained Thursday by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“I have been asked to provide notice that this office cannot accept statements/testimony of the above without corroboration from a second officer who can testify to what occurred in all cases,” reads the letter, dated Monday, from First Assistant District Attorney Rebecca Spangler to police Chief Scott Schubert.

“We cannot put them on the stand in court as the lead witness,” the letter continues. “Further, it must be determined on a case-by-case basis whether we would use them to corroborate another police witness.”

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette obtained the letter through an open-records request.

The four detectives came under scrutiny in October after they got into a fight with several members of the Pagans motorcycle club at Kopy’s Bar on South 12th Street on the South Side while they were working an undercover detail.

The detectives drank alcohol for several hours at the bar before the fight, surveillance video showed. The incident prompted multiple lawsuits against the city and caused the city to review and revise its rules about undercover officers drinking while on duty.

Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board, said the restrictions show that the district attorney’s office no longer has confidence in the credibility and truthfulness of the four detectives involved in the Kopy’s incident.

“It’s refreshing in that the officers’ integrity and credibility is finally being judged on their performance,” Ms. Pittinger said. “The most effective trait an officer has is their credibility, their honesty. And we know those four were just a discredit to policing in general, let alone the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police.”

She said the district attorney’s restrictions will limit the detectives’ ability to carry out their duties in the violent crime unit.

“They would be expected to be qualified to interact with victims of violent crime, to obtain witness statements and information, and with this notification from the district attorney, they’re not going to be able to do that,” she said. “So we come back to: Are they qualified to be police officers?”

A spokesman for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. declined to comment Thursday. Pittsburgh police declined to comment beyond acknowledging that they received the letter and saying they requested additional information from the district attorney’s office. 

Undercover Pittsburgh police detectives brawled with members of the Pagans motorcycle club inside Kopy's bar on the South Side on Oct. 11, 2018.

Robert Swartzwelder, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, said Thursday that he had not seen the letter. But he said testifying in court is a critical part of all police officers’ jobs, and the district attorney’s restrictions might violate the detectives’ employment rights. 

“If someone, whoever that is, materially alters an officer’s working conditions without due process, they have violated the officer’s due process,” he said. 

He said the union will evaluate the letter before determining its next steps.

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