On March 25, 2005, members of the Easton, Pennsylvania Police Department SWAT team, including Matthew Renninger and Officer Jesse Sollman, returned to the Easton Police Department after a day of SWAT training and began breaking down and cleaning various weapons used that day. Renninger took his firearm, a 40-caliber handgun, out of his holster and placed it on a bench in the locker room. Renninger placed the gun on safe, left the handgun at that location, and obtained an MP-5 from the primary armory to clean it in the secondary cleaning room.
After cleaning the MP-5, Renninger put it away and picked up his handgun to clean it, entering the secondary cleaning room again. In so doing, he took his firearm off of safe and walked down the hallway to clean his weapon, without the safety applied and without the benefit of a holster. He did, however, unload the gun before walking to the cleaning room. Once Renninger cleaned the handgun, he went back to the locker room, loaded the gun, and was about to holster it when he recognized a white smudge on the weapon. He then returned to the secondary cleaning room where Sollman was present.
Renninger asked Sollman how to remove the smudge. Sollman instructed Renninger on how to remove the smudge, and Renninger went to a corner of the room and began to wipe down the loaded firearm. After wiping down the slide, Renninger took the weapon off of safe and turned counter-clockwise. While he was turning, Renninger bumped into Sollman, momentarily lost his grip on the handgun, and as he reflexively grabbed and re-gripped the handgun, the gun accidentally discharged, killing Sollman.
The incident was the subject of a state-wide grand jury investigation, which found that, although Renninger was negligent in handling his weapon, his actions were not unlawful so as to justify filing criminal charges. The grand jury did, however, recommend Renninger’s termination as an Easton police officer.
Renninger retired before he was terminated, and filed a request for a disability retirement, citing his post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from the shooting. When the local disability and retirement commission voted to grant the disability retirement request, the City challenged the decision through the court system.
The City argued that Renninger did not sustain his disability while in the “lawful performance of his duties” as required by state law because his actions constituted a gross deviation from safety standards taught as early as the police academy. The disability commission defined the phrase “lawful performance of duties” as focusing on whether the officer was convicted of a crime or had engaged in actions that were a crime. In Renninger’s case, the grand jury found Renninger guilty of simple negligence only rather than gross negligence. Though gross negligence would have supported a criminal charge of involuntary manslaughter, “the City did not identify a law that Renninger violated at the time of the incident.”
The Court found that “the Commission’s interpretation of the phrase ‘lawful performance of his duties’ is reasonable. Moreover, in light of the deference afforded the Commission’s interpretation and the liberal construction to be given in favor of the pensioner, we are unable to reach the result advocated by the City.
“Here we are confronted with a case in which a police officer suffered disabling psychic injuries from his reaction to an event that occurred as a result of his own conduct. In the absence of evidence that Renninger’s conduct was, in fact, in violation of the law, the record cannot support a finding that Renninger’s psychic injuries did not occur in the ‘lawful performance of his duties.’”
Mitman v. Police Pension Com’n of City of Easton, 972 A.2d 1276 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2009).
This article appears in the August 2009 issue