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Officers sign letter criticizing chief for hostile work environment, union threatens ‘war’ with city

Wilkinsburg Police Department Command Staff.
Wilkinsburg Police Department Command Staff.

The firing of a Wilkinsburg police officer earlier this month, the pending suspension of three others and a letter from some officers expressing no confidence in their chief has exposed labor-management strife in a borough police department that a union leader described as a “huge mess.”

On April 5 — the same day that the borough council voted to fire Stephen Minton over allegations that he spent “idle” time during his shifts instead of working, and then tried to cover it up — an unsigned letter was delivered on behalf of some officers to council that was highly critical of police Chief Ophelia “Cookie” Coleman.

The three-page letter alleged unprofessional conduct, poor treatment of officers and a hostile work environment filled with “fear and uncertainty.”

“We’re prepared to go to war with Wilkinsburg,” Carl A. Bailey, secretary/treasurer and principal officer of Teamsters Local 205, which represents unionized Wilkinsburg police officers, said Monday. He claimed that the letter represented the opinion of a majority of the department’s officers, who number around 21 or 22.

WPD Chief Ophelia “Cookie” Coleman.

“I think we have a bad chief who does not look after her people, who does not do a good job running her department,” Mr. Bailey said. “It’s a huge mess. I think it’s only going to get worse.”

Chief Coleman, a former longtime Pittsburgh police detective who has run the Wilkinsburg department for the past decade, declined Monday to respond to the allegations in the letter.

But she said the complaints were an outgrowth of ire from the officers who were disciplined.

“That’s in response to their suspension, so they’re making that letter like it’s a majority of the officers, but it’s not,” Chief Coleman said.

The chief added that a counter-letter written by members of her department had been circulating in support of her. She declined to release a copy of that document. She said she first learned of the critical letter around 2:30 a.m. two weeks ago when an officer called her at home.

“The officers were upset about it, and said they were going to write a rebuttal to that letter the next day because they felt [those who wrote the critical letter] weren’t speaking for the whole department,” Chief Coleman said.

“Morale is fine. There’s no turbulence,” the chief said. “We’re doing exciting things here in Wilkinsburg. We have block clubs, we have all of our officers that are working with our community, we have great community engagement, great community support.”

Mr. Bailey, a former police officer in McKeesport, described a toxic environment at the Wilkinsburg department with some officers worrying about not getting backup, fearing retaliation and being concerned over falling out of favor with the chief.

Mayor John Thompson said an internal investigation is continuing. While Mr. Minton has been fired, the other three officers have received notification of a pending suspension, which the mayor said will be handled by Chief Coleman.

“There was a violation of a procedure and a policy,” Mr. Thompson said, without providing details. “It’s still a personnel issue.”

According to a statement of charges sent to Mr. Minton and dated April 11, the borough investigated allegations that officers were “remaining stationary or idle during their tour of duty, in remote areas of the Borough.”

The letter, signed by borough Manager Donn Henderson, accused Mr. Minton of participating in such conduct while “not appearing to perform police duties.”

At the time, Mr. Minton was already on a last-chance agreement until mid-June over a previous disciplinary issue about “dishonesty with respect to an official police report” that resulted in a five-day unpaid suspension, according to the letter.

The borough examined the “position” of Mr. Minton’s police cruiser “and it was determined that there were portions of his shifts where there was not a legitimate basis for his vehicle to remain idle, such as monitoring traffic or a specific detail assigned by a ranking officer,” the letter said.

There was no evidence that during those periods Mr. Minton was writing reports or “accessing technology systems to complete police work,” according to the letter.

Mr. Henderson accused Mr. Minton of concealing his idle time by filling out police activity logs “in a manner that suggested constant police activity. Officer Minton’s activity logs for the dates and times while he was idle misrepresented his actual activity, as the activity logs indicated that he was actively patrolling or performing other police duties in the Borough, although such work was not performed.”

Mr. Bailey denied the allegations. He said that Mr. Minton, like other officers Mr. Bailey has known in various departments, would compile his activity log retroactively at the end of busy shifts because he did not have time during the actual shift to note all of his calls.

As a result, Mr. Bailey said, the exact times and other data might be not be exact when compared to GPS records. Mr. Bailey said the borough used the GPS in Mr. Minton’s police cruiser to match against the officer’s logs.

“Basically he did nothing wrong,” Mr. Bailey said. “They’re saying that he was idle too long during the course of a day. There’s no allegation that he ever missed a call, never left the borough. There’s no allegations he was sleeping. His GPS didn’t match his log sheet.”

In 2015, a Wilkinsburg couple filed a civil rights lawsuit against Officer Minton, Wilkinsburg Sgt. John Snyder, Wilkinsburg and Rent-A-Center. The complaint included claims of illegal search and seizure and malicious prosecution. The officers accompanied Rent-A-Center employees who went to a home to repossess a mattress. They broke down the door, according to the suit, threatened the family and filed charges. Wilkinsburg settled its portion of the case involving the officers in July 2015. Rent-A-Center settled in December of that year and the case was formally closed in federal court in January 2016.

Jonathan D. Silver: jsilver@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1962 or on Twitter @jsilverpg.


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