Updated 5:05 p.m.
The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police said today the city is investigating an alleged weekend encounter between one of its officers and Leon Ford, the 25-year-old activist who was shot and paralyzed by city police in 2012.
Commander Eric Holmes would not say today if the officer’s alleged comments would constitute a policy violation, but said, “Certainly as a member of the Bureau of Police — all of us from the chief to the newest officer — we all have a standard to uphold and must all be held accountable for that.”
According to a Facebook post published Saturday on Ford’s page, he encountered the officer while in his wheelchair on the North Shore. Ford said he smiled at the officer and that “in return this officer gave me the most hateful glare.”
Ford, who settled a lawsuit against the city for $5.5 million, said he stopped, asked the officer “what his problem was,” and got no response.
“I asked for his name and he told me that he didn’t have to speak to me and that I was only looking for another check,” Ford continued, adding in the post, “I am infuriated.”
At a press conference at police headquarters today, Holmes said the department was made aware of an incident involving an officer and Ford “in and around the Steelers activities on the North Shore.” Holmes said the officer was working an approved secondary detail for the preseason Steelers game at Heinz Field on Saturday, adding that bureau policies still apply to officers working approved secondary details.
“Once we received word of what occurred, we made proper notifications and initiated an internal investigation through our Office of Municipal Investigations, which is standard protocol,” Holmes explained.
Mayoral Spokesperson Tim McNulty confirmed the officer’s identity as Paul Jenkins. Police did not confirm this themselves, citing provisions in the bureau’s contract with Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 1. During his press conference, Holmes said the officer involved is a force veteran whose status remains unchanged with the investigation underway. Neither Jenkins nor FOP representatives could be reached today for comment.
In response to specific claims by Ford that Jenkins refused to identify himself or provide his badge number, Holmes said officers are required to disclose this information if it’s requested by a citizen.
In photos of the encounter included in Ford’s Facebook post, a body camera is visible on the officer’s uniform. Holmes said it’s unclear if that camera yielded any footage of the encounter but that investigators will work to determine that through the course of their investigation. Holmes said investigators will also reach out to Ford.
“The investigation will play out — and what was said and not said will play out — but certainly we have a standard to uphold and must all be held accountable,” Holmes said.
Jenkins’ brother, Morgan Jenkins, was a Pittsburgh police officer who was shot and paralyzed while on-duty in 2013, Department of Public Safety spokesperson Chris Togneri confirmed to The Incline.
Advocates, activists and Ford quickly pressed the city and bureau to take action in connection with Ford’s encounter with Officer Paul Jenkins over the weekend, warning that on the heels of the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Antwon Rose II in East Pittsburgh Borough in June, this incident could further undermine already fragile police-community relations here.
“The gas is on in our city and it’ll only take one small incident to ignite a flame that we will never recover from,” Ford wrote on Facebook. His post had drawn more than 500 comments and more than 1,400 shares by this afternoon. Attempts to reach him today were unsuccessful.
In response to the post, Tim Stevens, chairman and CEO of the Black Political Empowerment Project, sent an email to Mayor Bill Peduto, Police Chief Scott Schubert, and Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich urging them to “please move expeditiously to remedy this unfortunate situation.”
Reached by The Incline, Beth Pittinger of the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board said, “The whole nature of the alleged comment was pretty offensive, and I would consider it unbecoming [of an officer]. It’s callous, it’s cruel, it’s all of those things. It’s totally inappropriate to say something like that to someone. The [lawsuit] was settled and is what it is. […] What [the officer] could have done is just be courteous and just have responded politely — or not responded at all.”
Ford was shot five times by former Pittsburgh Officer David Derbish on Nov. 11, 2012 after being pulled over in East Liberty and mistaken for another man.
Ford sued in 2013 and settled with the city earlier this year. Derbish was not charged, but Ford was with a series of criminal counts, including aggravated assault on an officer, related to the police encounter that left him with paraplegia. Ford was ultimately acquitted by a jury of the most serious count and the jury deadlocked on others. District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. decided to not retry Ford on the remaining misdemeanor counts after a lengthy period of deliberation.
On the heels of the fatal police shooting Rose, Ford joined protesters in calling for police reforms and Zappala’s ouster. Ford has also discussed launching his own political action committee to fund candidates he sees as similarly committed to police accountability and reforms.
Pressed on what this incident means for the bureau’s efforts to improve police-community relations in Pittsburgh, Holmes said, “You often hear leadership saying we’re one incident away from something occurring. And we recognize that as Pittsburgh police, we have to work to do. And incidents happen that underscore we’re still a work in progress, and we’ll continue to work to make ourselves better, and we also have to hold ourselves accountable for our actions.”