Targets of criticism
State cops, Steelers under fire over firearms party with assault guns
By DANA DiFILIPPO
Philadelphia Daily News
AT LEAST 14 Pittsburgh Steelers participated in a shooting party with Pennsylvania State Police troopers at the Greensburg barracks, using state police ammunition and illegal assault weapons from the evidence room, sources say.
Although the gun-fun day was three years ago, someone recently began circulating photographs of the pistol-packing players among state troopers, prompting outraged calls for an outside investigation.
Critics contend it is proof of a pattern of state police ignoring or covering up misbehavior by superiors.
"It's a state police firing range used for state police to train. When we're there, it's downright military," said one state police official, who requested anonymity. "But at this event, it's chaos. Everybody's throwing contraband assault weapons around like they're toys; it's like they're having G.I. Joe tryouts. Not only is this totally unethical, but it's totally illegal."
Lt. Myra Taylor, spokeswoman for the state police, said the state cops routinely host community groups for firearms-safety instruction. She denied that the Steelers had used firearms from the evidence room or that state police had issued ammo.
"This was a good-faith gesture to ensure that they [Steelers] knew how to operate firearms safely," Taylor said. "We do this with a number of other community groups - Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, citizen police groups."
The photographs, a group of which were mailed anonymously to the Daily News, show the players using M-16s and assorted other rifles and handguns to shoot targets at the barracks' firing range while surrounded by smiling troopers, firearms instructors and barracks supervisors.
Aside from the liability land mines of allowing untrained civilians to blast away on a state police firing range, critics say, the photographs show state police supervisors used poor judgment in hosting the gun party:
* Three sources familiar with the event said some of the weapons wielded were confiscated illegal guns from state police evidence rooms.
However, Taylor said the firearms were "personal weapons owned by others," although she couldn't say who owned them. She also couldn't explain what appeared to be a state police property number or evidence tag visible on the magazine of one assault rifle a player holds in one photo.
Using firearms held for evidence could jeopardize cases and violates departmental policy forbidding anyone from using evidentiary items, sources said.
* The party occurred during a time when state police officials, seeking to trim costs, had severely restricted troopers' ammunition use, the sources said. At the time, troopers were given enough ammunition to qualify with their firearms, as they're required to do twice a year, but no extra to improve their proficiency, sources said.
Taylor said that no state police-issued ammunition had been used by the Steelers, even though two sources familiar with the shooting day identified it as such. In several photos, the doors to a range shelter where ammunition and range gear is kept stand wide open, and piles of state police ammunition boxes litter the ground.
* Participants also violated multiple range regulations, even as barracks supervisors and firearms instructors observed, sources said. For example, some of the Steelers fired away without ear or eye protection. In other photos, participants didn't heed rules requiring them to stand single-file on the firing line.
Most disturbing is a group portrait of the athletes and troopers, in which two players adopt gangster poses and point their firearms at their comrades' heads. In that image, Maj. Harvey Cole Jr., who was the troop's commander but who now heads patrol at the department's Harrisburg headquarters, stands smiling behind a kneeling, gun-toting Joey Porter, at the time a Steelers linebacker.
Cole didn't return a telephone message from the Daily News.
Taylor said the players pointing guns at each other was "regrettable; we would never encourage something like that." But she downplayed other apparent safety violations, saying participants did some "dry-firing" - shooting without ammunition - and so wouldn't necessarily need eye protection.
Besides Porter, players pictured included Ike Taylor, James Harrison, Max Starks, James Farrior, Brett Keisel and Najeh Davenport. Others couldn't be identified because some photos were grainy and others were shot from a distance.
The players, most of whom are at football training camp this week, couldn't be reached for comment. Porter and Davenport no longer play for the Steelers.
Lt. Taylor said the "Steelers camp" requested gun-safety instruction, which led to the target-shooting day.
Steelers spokesman Dave Lockett yesterday declined to comment on the incident, saying: "This is the first I've been told of any of this."
A state police union official declined to comment.
Lt. Taylor said former Maj. Frank Monaco, now police chief in Plum Borough outside Pittsburgh, organized the gun party. Monaco couldn't be reached for comment.
State police superiors have several ties to last year's Super Bowl-winning team and to pro football.
Former Commissioner Col. Jeffrey Miller left the state police in July 2008 to direct the National Football League's strategic security program. Miller didn't return a call for comment.
Former Lt. Col. Coleman McDonough's father played for the Steelers in the early 1940s; the younger McDonough, now chief of the Mount Lebanon Police Department, said yesterday that he hadn't heard of the shooting party and was last stationed at Greensburg in 1989.
Several Steelers also helped raise money for slain state police Cpl. Joseph Pokorny's family and other officers killed in the line of duty.
The NFL has a guns and weapons policy that prohibits players from possessing a gun or weapon "at any time you are performing any service for your team or the NFL."
The policy does allow players to use firearms and other weapons for sport or protection, but says "we strongly recommend that you not do so. Any weapon, particularly a firearm, is dangerous - especially so when it is in a vehicle or within reach of children and others not properly trained in its use."
Some photographs show players milling around the firing range carrying firearms, with children - reportedly the offspring of some troopers - nearby.
At the Daily News' request, a National Rifle Association-certified training counselor and firearms instructor examined the photographs and detected multiple "dumb and dangerous" safety violations.
"The photos show generally unsafe gun-handling techniques," said Paul Raynolds, a chief range-safety officer from North Jersey. "The players look to be poorly supervised. Basic firearm-safety rules are not being followed."
One "sacrosanct" gun-safety rule ignored in the photos is the safe-direction rule, Raynolds said.
"It doesn't matter if a gun is loaded or not; all guns are to be treated as if they're loaded at all times. So whenever you're handling a gun, it should always be pointed in a safe direction - unless you are getting ready to shoot somebody," Raynolds said.
"Here," he added, referring to the group portrait, "you have [a player] pointing this straight at his [another player's] skull. [Other players] are pointing the gun directly at the other guy and the cameraman. That's just negligent beyond belief."
Further, visitors to a firing range should not handle firearms anywhere but at the firing line, Raynolds said. In the photographs, players stroll around the range with firearms in hand, aimed in multiple directions.
Raynolds laid responsibility for the unsafe gun-handling techniques on the state police.
"[Each player] is at a police range. He's with police officers. He has to assume that whatever he's doing is OK, unless he's told otherwise," Raynolds said. "All they're [police] doing is teaching them bad habits - and potentially endangering them, because what if there's a round left in the chamber?"
Ralph Cindrich is a former professional football player and current sports agent who advises his clients - who include Farrior - not to carry guns.
While he agrees the safe-direction rule is inviolable, he said the Steelers' outing to the Greensburg barracks is "of low concern."
"They were at a shooting range with the trained professionals of the state police. The benefits of these players taking time to communicate with and learn from law enforcement far outweighs any one mishap that may have occurred there," said Cindrich, who played for the New England Patriots and the Houston Oilers.
Others weren't so understanding.
"These are not play toys; these are not the type of things you take a bunch of untrained guys out to play with," said civil-rights attorney Don Bailey, who has several lawsuits pending against the state police. "What if someone had gotten hurt? There needs to be a grand-jury investigation into the conduct and affairs of the Pennsylvania State Police's top leaders."