Pa.: Slain officer never asked for help

Jonathan D. Silver Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Copyright 2005 P.G. Publishing Co.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pennsylvania) 

At Allegheny County's 911 center, no one monitors state police transmissions. Dispatchers there already have their hands full dealing with calls for 90 or so local police departments.

The same is true at the police station in Carnegie, the town where state police Cpl. Joseph R. Pokorny was killed outside a hotel during a traffic stop. Carnegie police operate on a radio frequency different from the state's.

So when Cpl. Pokorny, who was riding alone, notified his dispatcher about 2 a.m. on Dec. 12 that he was tailing a car at high speed, the only ones who were listening were his dispatcher, fellow troopers and any police scanner enthusiasts up at that hour tuned to the state police channel.

Potential backup was nearby -- a Carnegie officer on routine patrol in the area. But state police never asked Carnegie -- or any other local police departments -- for help, although they could have done so through Allegheny County 911. Technology there allows the emergency operations center to patch different departments together regardless of their radio frequencies.

"All we need to know is a chase exists, or all somebody has to do is request, 'I want to talk to Wilkinsburg, I want to talk to Penn Hills, I want to talk to Carnegie,' and we can make that happen," Allegheny County Emergency Services Chief Robert Full said.

Such requests happen frequently, as chases from Pittsburgh, say, spill over into Homestead or Wilkinsburg. But, Chief Full said, state police rarely contact Allegheny County 911.

"Very seldom do we get calls for requests for assistance," he said.

The Carnegie officer arrived too late to help. He stumbled upon Cpl. Pokorny's body after, police say, the driver of the car the corporal was chasing shot and killed him with his own weapon.

It will always be an unanswered question whether Cpl. Pokorny's life could have been saved if circumstances were different.

What if he were riding with a partner -- something he was not required to do, unlike the troopers under his command during the midnight shift who have to double up?

What if the corporal had drawn his gun -- something District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said he never did?

And what if state police had notified Carnegie police and surrounding departments of the chase on the Parkway West?

"In this case, maybe disaster could have been averted if it had been standard protocol to notify the municipal officers of an impending stop," Green Tree Police Chief Robert Cifrulak said. "Unless it's standard protocol, if it isn't the routine, then when is it done?"

State police have declined to address specific questions about the traffic stop outside the Extended StayAmerica hotel. Officials will not give details about the car chase, Cpl. Pokorny's actions, or decisions made by the state police dispatcher.

But Trooper Robin Mungo, spokeswoman for the state police Pittsburgh barracks in Moon, said the station's dispatcher can contact Allegheny County 911 with the push of a button.

"We don't have what we call a dedicated line, but our phones have 911 programmed into them, so it's just a matter of pushing a button and being directly connected," Trooper Mungo said.

She could not say whether that was done. But Chief Full said Allegheny County 911 was not contacted by state police during Cpl. Pokorny's pursuit, and several municipal police departments in the area of the chase also said they were not alerted.

"It's a problem," Dormont Police Chief Russell McKibben said.

At a news conference this week, Mr. Zappala said he was disturbed that communications problems have not been solved despite repeated efforts over the past few years by his office and Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association.

Chief Full declined to respond to specific criticisms by Mr. Zappala and others about the pace of revamping communications systems but said great strides have been made in recent years in creating countywide frequencies that can be used in emergencies and in refining procedures to patch agencies together even if they operate on different frequencies.

The communications problem -- a national issue brought into focus during the terrorist attacks of Sept., 11, 2001, when various emergency responders had problems communicating -- was mentioned in a 2003 letter to Chief Full from the police chiefs association.

Referring to a 2002 visit to Western Pennsylvania by President Bush, the letter noted that "the Secret Service, Pennsylvania State Police, Pittsburgh Police and Municipal Police did not have the ability to communicate directly with each other by radio."

"Representatives from each of these agencies [with radios] were assigned to the 'Scout Car,' and a decision was made that if any type of incident should occur, they would not separate so communication could be maintained."

Communications aside, Cpl. Pokorny was particularly vulnerable -- not only because he patrolled alone, but because state police have few troopers on duty during the overnight shift to cover a large territory and back one another up.

The Pittsburgh barracks is responsible for patrolling all interstates and major highways in Allegheny County except for Route 28, as well as doing part-time patrols of several towns. Typically, Trooper Mungo said, the midnight shift has two two-person patrol units and a supervisor.

On Dec. 12, at least one of those units responded to a crash on the Parkway East in Wilkinsburg at 1:26 a.m. It could not be determined how long those troopers were tied up at that incident. Cpl. Pokorny alerted his dispatcher at 1:56 a.m. that he was pursuing a vehicle miles away. Trooper Mungo could not determine where the other state police unit on duty was at the time.

"People have a misconception that the roads are flooded with state police on the interstates," Chief Cifrulak of Green Tree said. "It's no sweat off my back for my guys to be aware and to begin to respond to a routine traffic stop conducted by the Pennsylvania State Police. I think that's good, sensible police work."

In traveling alone, Cpl. Pokorny did nothing unusual compared with his brethren in other police departments across the nation. In Pittsburgh's most dangerous neighborhoods, officers as well as supervisors often drive alone. However, Cpl. Pokorny was treated differently within the state police because of his rank.

Troopers must ride with partners on the midnight shift under department rules. But supervisors have an option.

"We ride by ourselves all the time," said state police Maj. Frank H. Monaco, who oversees three troops, including the one to which Cpl. Pokorny was assigned.

Had the corporal been killed at 11 p.m., when troopers ride alone, or during the middle of the day, would it have changed anything, Maj. Monaco asked rhetorically.

"If you want to second guess, you could say he shouldn't have made the stop. He shouldn't have come to work that day," Maj. Monaco said.

He called Cpl. Pokorny aggressive, courageous, experienced and fit -- someone who likely thought he could deal with the situation.

"The reality is he made a stop and thought he could handle it, and if anybody could have handled it, it would've been him," Maj. Monaco said. 
Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962.
December 23, 2005

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