Wednesday, March 22, 2006

 

Attorney Generals Report!

Below is the States Press Release over the Death of Officer Sollman.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Attorney General Corbett announces findings of
grand jury investigation into the death of
Easton Police Officer Jesse Sollman

ALLENTOWN – Attorney General Tom Corbett today announced the findings of a grand jury investigation into the shooting death of Easton Police Officer Jesse Sollman.



Corbett said the grand jury found that Officer Matthew Renninger, the officer who shot Sollman on March 25, 2005, conducted himself in a negligent manner and directly caused the death of Officer Sollman.



The grand jury found that while Renninger’s actions were negligent, they did not rise to the level of criminal negligence or recklessness. They also found that the evidence and the surrounding circumstances of the shooting of Officer Sollman by Renninger demonstrate that the shooting was unintentional and without malice.



While the grand jury did not direct the Attorney General’s Office to issue a presentment of criminal charges against Renninger, they did issue a scathing 24- page Grand Jury Report of the deficiencies of the Easton Police Department.

Corbett said grand jurors made 11 findings which were highly critical of the Easton police facilities, the lack of training for police officers in handling weapons and the command structure within the police department.



The report also lists 10 specific recommendations to improve the operations of the Easton Police Department, including the termination of Officer Renninger.



Corbett said the Attorney General’s Office initiated an investigation into the death of Officer Jesse Sollman when District Attorney John Morganelli referred the case based on a potential conflict of interest.



Grand Jury Investigation

The Pennsylvania State Police initially investigated the shooting of Officer Sollman in July 2005, Corbett decided to place the investigation before a statewide investigating grand jury to further investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Officer Sollman.



During the course of the investigation the grand jury heard testimony from 23 current and former members of the Easton Police Department staff. Additionally, the grand jury reviewed testimony and evidence from: investigators with the Office of Attorney General; Pennsylvania State Police; City of Easton officials; plaintiffs’ attorneys, who have sued the City of Easton for alleged police misconduct; and defense attorneys who have defended the City of Easton in cases involving allegations of police misconduct.



The grand jury also reviewed evidence regarding: current and past training standards and regimens for the Easton Police Department; the practices, policies, standards and regulations pertaining to training and firearms safety for the Easton police; the command structure of the Easton police; the physical facilities for firearms safety and maintenance within the Easton police; and, evidence regarding policies, practices, standards and regulations of other law enforcement agencies pertaining to firearm training and safety.

The Death of Officer Sollman

The grand jury found that at approximately 3:05 p.m., Police Officers Renninger, Sollman and Robert Weber were together in the very small and cramped secondary gun cleaning room on the second floor of the Easton police headquarters cleaning an MP-5 submachine gun after spending most of the day at a firing range as members of the SWAT Team. Renninger returned the cleaned MP-5 to the main armory room and proceeded to the locker room area and unloaded his duty weapon, an H & K 40 caliber semi-automatic pistol, in preparation for cleaning the weapon.



Renninger returned to the secondary cleaning room and proceeded to break down and clean his duty weapon which was not loaded. Officers Sollman and Weber were still in the secondary room cleaning their own duty weapons. After Renninger finished cleaning and reassembling his weapon, Renninger left the secondary cleaning room at approximately 3:27 p.m. Renninger is viewed on an Easton security police video, walking down the hallway, towards the locker room, with his weapon in his left hand.



Renninger testified before the grand jury that at that time he proceeded to fully load his weapon in the locker room. He said he inserted12 rounds into the weapon’s magazine and placed a round into the chamber leaving the magazine with 11 rounds. He decocked the pistol causing it to be placed in double action. He removed the magazine and topped off the magazine with one additional round, again bringing the magazine to 12 rounds, reinserted the magazine into the pistol making the weapon fully loaded with 13 rounds.



Renninger stated that he then completed a “press check” which is slightly pulling back the slide of the pistol, exposing a portion of the round which allowed him to look into the chamber to determine if a round was actually chambered. He then put the weapon in an “off safe position,” which made the pistol ready to fire.

Renninger told the grand jury that he was about to put his weapon in his holster, which was hanging on a hook in his locker, when he noticed an off color smudge mark on the slide of the pistol.



Renninger returned to the secondary cleaning room where Officers Sollman and Weber were still cleaning their weapons and asked Sollman’s advice on how to remove the smudge mark. Renninger testified that Sollman told him to rub oil on it and that he then placed his weapon on safe, and laid it on the work counter. He sprayed an oily lubricant on a rag, picked up his weapon with his right hand, and proceeded to rub the oil on the slide of his weapon.



At this time, Weber was to Renninger’s immediate right, cleaning a weapon and Sollman was approximately three to four feet behind Renninger, at a separate work counter cleaning his own pistol. Renninger said that after he completed oiling the slide, he took his weapon “off safe” and began to turn to leave the room. He said he was holding the weapon in his right hand, at approximately stomach height, close to his body, with the barrel pointed downward at a six o’clock position.



Renninger said that he then backed up a step while looking in a downward direction, and turned in a counter-clock wise direction. He stated that unbeknownst to him, Sollman had changed position at the counter where he was working and had moved to a position closer to him. He said that prior to making any eye contact with Sollman, the back of his right hand struck some portion of either Sollman’s back or left arm, causing his weapon to become unstable in his hand. Renninger said that although the weapon became loose in his hand, it never left his hand. He simultaneously stepped back and re-gripped the weapon with his right hand to regain control. In regaining control of the weapon, Renninger somehow caused the weapon to be turned so that the barrel was pointed towards Sollman’s back. During this effort to re-grip and regain control of the weapon, Renninger inadvertently caused the weapon to fire.

Corbett said that the grand jurors did not accept Renninger’s recollection regarding how he held his weapon as he turned from the counter and collided with Sollman. Renninger’s belief that he was holding his weapon with the barrel pointed downward in a six o’clock position simply fails to comport with the physical evidence.



The grand jury heard evidence from the medical examiner and ballistician that when fired, the muzzle of Renninger’s weapon was 45 to 46 inches from the ground and pointed in a slightly upwards angle. The grand jury found that Renninger could not have been holding the weapon pointing downward at a six o’clock position when he came into contact with Officer Sollman.



Additionally, the grand jury believes it is possible that Renninger’s weapon had been accidentally placed into a single action when Renninger conducted the “press check” in the locker room prior to re-entering the secondary cleaning room. Putting the pistol in single action reduces the necessary pounds of pressure to fire the weapon from 9.8 to 4.2.



Firearm Safety Facilities

The grand jury found that the secondary cleaning room where Officer Sollman was shot by Renninger created an inherently dangerous situation due to its small size and limited floor space. The room, which is windowless and without ventilation, is only 7-feet 5-inches by 10-feet 1-inch and had previously been used for the storage of parking meters and road flares.



The cramped cleaning room also has a cabinet that extends 2-feet from the wall, a workbench that extends 2-feet 1-inch from the wall and a shelf that is three feet long and extends 1-foot from the wall, a trash can in the middle of the room and a chair.



Firearms Safety Training

The grand jury was unable to identify any training, conducted by the Easton Police Department, pertaining to the transport of weapons, loading and unloading of weapons, and cleaning of weapons while in the confines of the police headquarters.



The majority of officers questioned admitted that they had carried a loaded and unholstered weapon while within the police headquarters. Officers testified that it was not unusual to load and unload their weapons in the armory and secondary cleaning room while other officers were present. Many officers additionally testified that they had loaded and unloaded their weapons in the locker room or elsewhere within the police headquarters. One officer pointedly described their practices in loading and unloading their weapons as “a hodge podge.”



The grand jury found that individual officer preferences dictated whether officers carried their handguns inside headquarters with the safety on or off. A number of officers testified that they regularly kept their handguns with the safety off, capable of firing by a pull of the trigger. While no officer testified that he had ever dismantled and cleaned a loaded weapon, the majority of those questioned stated that they had “wiped down” their department issued firearms while in a loaded condition.



Easton Police Department Policies, Procedures and Rules

The grand jury found that not a single Easton Police officer who testified before them was able to identify any formal written policies, procedures, rules or regulations that existed regarding: the carrying and transport of firearms within the police headquarters; the cleaning of weapons; the loading or unloading of weapons; when and where to engage or disengage the safety on a weapon; and, when and where weapons can, or should, be unholstered.

Many officers who testified flatly stated that no written policies existed or had, to their knowledge, ever existed. Several officers testified that there had been a written manual containing departmental policies and procedures in the past, but these had been collected years ago and never reissued.



Attorney General’s agents and State Police could only find a single page of written policy from the Easton police regarding the safe handling of firearms.



The grand jury heard testimony about a prior discharge of a firearm within the police headquarters in 2001, when an officer accidentally discharged his handgun while loading it in the main armory. No one was injured and following the incident, safety barrels containing sand were placed in two locations in the headquarters building. A memo was issued, on Nov. 21, 2001, directing all police officers to load weapons while pointing the weapon muzzles into these barrels full of sand, however, the memo does not mention the unloading of weapons.



Testimony by officers before the grand jury found that the issuance of this memo was a one-time event and was never followed by any training or enforcement. Indeed, a number of officers testified that they were either unaware of the existence of this memo or did not believe it was mandatory. None of the officers questioned could recollect a single time when an officer had been reprimanded or disciplined for failure to comply with this memo or any other firearm safety standard. Testimony about the import of this memo was so varied and contradictory that it is clear it had little, if any, impact on the actual practices of the police officers.



As with training, the Easton Police Department relied solely on the personal experience and habits of each individual officer to maintain firearm safety within the police headquarters.



The grand jury received testimony and evidence regarding the written firearm safety policies and procedures employed by the Office of Attorney General and the Pennsylvania State Police. Additionally, the grand jury reviewed the written firearms safety standards recommended by the National Rifle Association. All of these written standards included provisions for the safe handling, transportation and cleaning of firearms. These written standards also included specific regulations for the handling of firearms within law enforcement facilities.



Command of the Easton Police Department

The grand jury found a significant series of failures in the past and current leadership of the Easton Police Department regarding deficiencies in the Easton police firearms facilities, firearms safety training and firearms safety standards.



The grand jury found no credible evidence that the past or current leadership of the Easton police attempted to remedy, or were even aware of, the firearms safety deficiencies that existed in the department.



The testimony of, and regarding, those in the command structure, now and in the past, demonstrated little effort to establish or enforce safety standards or standards of conduct for police officers. The grand jury found that some in the command structure appeared unwilling to acknowledge or unable to comprehend the gravity of these safety concerns.



Even following the 2001 accidental discharge of a firearm within the armory, the grand jury found that no significant efforts were made to establish or ensure firearm safety standards.



The grand jury found that many of the current and former members of the Easton police command structure provided self serving testimony regarding safety practices and safety standards that were clearly inconsistent with the other evidence received and reviewed by the grand jury.



The Culture of the Easton Police Department

As part of their investigation, the grand jury heard testimony about some of the past instances of police misconduct committed by members of the Easton police. The City of Easton has, since 2002, paid in excess of $4.4 million in civil settlements and verdicts as a result of police misconduct. This misconduct was not limited to individual acts by police officers but included concerted acts and decisions by police officers and members of the command structure.



The grand jury heard testimony involving Easton resident John Cuvo who was targeted by Easton police officers in a written directive by former Captain John Mazzeo despite the fact that Cuvo had not committed a crime. As a result of John Mazzeo’s directive, Cuvo, while driving his car, was stopped, arrested and beaten by Easton police officers. The grand jury found no evidence that disciplinary action was taken against the officers involved in this misconduct. In a lawsuit brought by Cuvo, he received approximately $2.5 million in a settlement from the City of Easton.



The grand jury also heard testimony regarding the SWAT unit and its membership and found that members of this unit viewed its membership as elite and distrusted any members of the command structure who had not previously been SWAT members. Some members of this unit employed a wolf’s head logo as part of the unit culture.



A number of officers, both SWAT and non-SWAT members, testified before the grand jury about their growing animosity toward then - Chief Stephen Mazzeo and his attempts at department reforms. Many viewed such reforms as a threat to the SWAT unit and the degree of independence its members appeared to enjoy.



The grand jury also heard a litany of complaints by officers who professed personal grievances against, and disagreements with the command structure. Most officers questioned appeared primarily concerned with their own interests and the preservation of a status quo that does not include accountability for misconduct.



The grand jury discerned little recognition by Easton police officers of their duties as public servants, standard bearers of the law and as protectors of the Easton community.



The grand jury found that none of the recent events, from the episodes of police misconduct to the death of Officer Sollman, appear to have caused any reflection or recognition by officers about the need for reforms within the department.



Grand Jury Findings



1. The secondary cleaning room created an inherently dangerous situation due to its small size and limited floor space.



2. There was no effort by the Easton Police Department to train its officers in the employment of appropriate safety standards while handling weapons within the Easton Police Department Headquarters. Instead, the Department relied upon the personal habits and judgment of each individual officer.



3. The absence of written standards for the handling, transportation and cleaning of firearms within the Easton Police Department facilities is entirely inconsistent with the standard operating procedures of law enforcement agencies.

4. In addition to the absence of adequate written safety standards there is an absence of an enforced code of conduct for Easton police officers. While some written policies exist, we conclude that they are largely unknown and rarely enforced. There is no recognized manual of standards, policies and regulations provided to the officers of the Easton Police Department.

5. The command structure of the Easton Police Department, at all levels, failed to identify and remedy obvious deficiencies in safety standards and practices. Command failed to enforce the limited policies that did exist. Command has also failed to establish and enforce clear standards of conduct for Easton police officers.

6. Officer Renninger possessed and transported his unholstered, fully loaded pistol in the secondary cleaning room with the safety disengaged.

7. Officer Renninger allowed the weapon’s muzzle to be pointed parallel to the floor at the time of its discharge.

8. Officer Renninger allowed the weapon’s muzzle to be pointed in very close proximity to a fellow officer’s body, 45” to 46” from the floor.

9. Officer Renninger allowed his trigger finger to slip behind the trigger guard of his weapon.

10. Officer Renninger applied between 4.2 and 9.8 pounds of pressure to the trigger of his service pistol causing the weapon to fire.


11. The projectile struck Officer Sollman in the back causing his death.



Grand Jury Recommendations



1. Adequate firearms safety facilities must be provided for the unloading, cleaning and loading of all weapons. Such facilities must provide adequate space for individual officers to safely unload, clean and reload weapons. The facilities must also include a sufficient number of safety barrels to ensure that every weapon is loaded and unloaded with the use of such barrels. Cameras should also be installed and maintained in all firearm safety facilities. These cameras will ensure compliance and assist in identifying those officers who fail to adequately meet required safety standards.



2. Regular training should be conducted of all Easton police officers regarding the safe handling of firearms within the Headquarters Building. Such training should include instructions as to the appropriate method of handling firearms while transporting and cleaning them within the Headquarters. Additionally, the training should specify the locations where firearms can be unholstered for cleaning, and should include specific safety standards and checks that must be observed before, during and after each unloading, cleaning and loading.



3. The Easton Police Department should immediately adopt strict written firearm safety standards.



4. The written firearm safety standards adopted by the Easton Police Department should, at a minimum, require: transportation of only unloaded firearms (with slide, bolt or action open) to and from adequate weapons cleaning rooms; no ammunition permitted in cleaning rooms; the mandatory use of safety barrels for the loading and unloading of all weapons; a prohibition on cleaning or handling loaded weapons for any purpose not specifically authorized; all loaded weapons in the headquarters must be in a department approved holster or stored in a locked and secured location; written adoption of the “finger, muzzle, partner” safety standard (requiring that every police officer holding a weapon maintain clear control, and recognition, of the location of his trigger finger, the location of his weapon muzzle and the location of his partner, at all times); the proper and safe storage of any weapon not being worn or carried by a police officer; safety inspections of all weapons in compliance with firearm safety regulations; and, disciplinary provisions for any and all violations of written firearm safety standards.



5. Specific personnel should be appointed and trained as firearms safety inspectors. They should be tasked with conducting safety inspections to ensure compliance with all firearms safety standards.



6. The Easton Police Department must establish clear standards of conduct, rules and regulations to be adhered to by all Easton police officers. These standards must also include consequences for compliance failures and enforcement provisions for the discipline and removal of officers who violate the standards of conduct. A manual of these standards should be issued to each police officer and regularly reviewed and updated. Each officer should certify, annually, that he possesses this manual and is aware of its contents.



7. The City of Easton should seek and employ a Chief of Police who is independent of, and without prior affiliation to, the Easton Police Department. This new Chief of Police should be hired and tasked with the reform of the Easton Police Department. His clear mission should be to establish strict standards for the assurance of integrity, community service and public safety by the police officers of the Easton Police Department. The new Chief of Police should be empowered to select and employ only those captains, lieutenants and sergeants who recognize the necessity for reform, and who will ensure the enforcement of the standards of conduct.



8. The Grand Jury recommends an effort to increase citizen participation in the oversight of the Easton Police Department. It further recommends that a group of citizens, who are not currently connected to the Easton Police Department, be selected to advise the Mayor and City Council of the Easton Police Department regarding the search and retention of a new Chief of Police.



9. The establishment of an internal affairs unit under the direct supervision of the Chief of Police. All allegations of misconduct shall be disclosed to the Mayor.

10. The negligence and errors of judgment of Officer Matthew Renninger in this matter should result in the termination of his employment as an Easton Police Officer.


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