APD chief resists changing policy

City Police Chief Janice Freehling earlier this week rejected the idea of a policy change to restrict the actions of off-duty officers, in the aftermath of two cases in which off-duty officers were charged after confrontations during social events that involved other off-duty cops and family members.

On Sunday, officer Matthew Plummer was charged with aggravated assault for allegedly punching a man who “mooned” a bus on which he was riding with his wife, seven other Altoona officers and other people in and out of law enforcement in the parking lot of a concert venue in Washington County, after someone threw a bottle at the bus.

Last year, officer Duane Eichenlaub was sentenced to 11 to 23 months in jail for aggravated assault and obstruction of justice, while officer Eric Kriner was sentenced to probation, for a 2010 incident at a local bar triggered by the alleged groping of Eichenlaub’s wife during a post-wedding party in honor of a fellow officer.

It’s hard to regulate off-duty behavior, Freehling said.

On the whole, there was nothing wrong with the concert outing, given that the “mixed” group had chartered the bus – which meant there would be no drinking and driving – to go to an event out of town, said Freehling and Lt. Tony Alianello, both of whom were at a City Council meeting.

Such outings are not unusual, and often involve trips to football games, Freehling and Alianello said.

Policing is a “high-stress job,” they said, implying that such outings help relieve the stress.

“They’re human beings,” Freehling said.

Speaking generally, City Councilman Mike Haire said he wasn’t sure what city management can do legally, “that would stand up in court.”

Public employees need to be careful what they do, however, “because if you do something wrong, it ends up on the front page,” Haire said.

Right or wrong, “perception matters,” because if it’s a bad perception, it hurts the city, he said.

As a councilman, if he’s at a bar, he better stop at one beer, then wait a while before driving home, because if he gets stopped and charged with driving under the influence, it will be in the news, he said.

Sports talk host Jim Rome frequently recites the mantra, “nothing good happens after dark” in speaking of athletes nabbed for misbehavior, Haire said.

Yet, while public employees are called to a higher standard, employers can’t “force” it, because those employees have freedoms and rights as citizens to do “pretty much what they want on their time off, as long as it doesn’t interfere with their jobs,” Haire said.

“You can advise them to use common sense and be careful,” Haire said.

Regarding the outcome for Plummer, “I guess we’ll just have to let it work itself out,” Alianello said. “It may not be as bad as it seems.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.