The president of Pittsburgh’s police union alleges the city violated state law and his rights as a union official by disciplining him over an email he sent to members in May criticizing the federal prosecution and trial of an officer convicted of police brutality.
Robert Swartzwelder, president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge 1, filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board accusing police officials of “unlawful discrimination” and “anti-union animus.”
“In a city that is largely Democratic and supposedly pro-union, the complaint clearly demonstrates that they’re anti-union, primarily anti-police union,” Swartzwelder said.
Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich declined comment, saying he was prohibited from discussing personnel disciplinary matters.
Police bureau officials ordered Swartzwelder to attend a counseling session after he issued an email highly critical of the U.S. Attorney’s office and West End-based Landmark Event Services over the prosecution of former Pittsburgh police Sgt. Stephen Matakovich. The session amounts to a verbal reprimand.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office and Landmark, which provides private security at Heinz Field, declined comment.
Matakovich is serving 27 months in federal prison for assaulting Gabriel Despres of South Park, who was drunk at a high school championship football game at Heinz Field on Nov. 28, 2015. A Federal Bureau of Prisons database lists him as an inmate at a low-security prison in Butner, N.C.
Video of the incident shows Matakovich pushing Despres, then 19, and repeatedly slapping him in the head. Despres pleaded guilty to trespassing and public drunkenness in connection with the incident.
In the email, Swartzwelder said Matakovich was unfairly prosecuted and advised FOP members to avoid working off-duty details at Heinz Field. Matakovich was working off-duty during the football game when summoned by Landmark to eject Despres.
“Landmark security made up facts and changed several perspectives to serve in my opinion an unscrupulous U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecution,” Swartzwelder wrote. “As for working in and around Landmark Security, any officer who does this jeopardizes their safety, livelihood, pension and freedom.”
Police officials said Swartzwelder’s words amounted to conduct unbecoming an officer, according to the labor complaint.
Swartzwelder and FOP attorneys contend that a union official’s private communication to members is protected under state law.
“The written counseling action by the city constitutes unlawful discrimination against Swartzwelder based upon anti-union animus,” the complaint says. “The city sought to punish Swartzwelder for speaking out as the president of the FOP.”
The Labor Relations Board has scheduled a telephone conference for February 13 and a hearing for April 23 if the sides fail to settle the complaint in February.