An off-duty police officer who fatally shot an unarmed man in front of his Port Richmond home Saturday has been involved in seven civilian complaints investigated by Internal Affairs, according to records obtained yesterday by the Daily News.
Two of the complaints accused the officer, identified by neighbors as Frank Tepper, of seeking retribution for his family members while he was off duty.
Three complaints, including the two involving his family, accused him of using excessive force.
And in a 2002 report, an investigator noted "ongoing tensions" between Tepper and neighborhood youth, and issued an ominous warning that his actions could have led to the use of deadly force.
In each case Tepper was "exonerated" or the accusations were "unfounded" or "not sustained," but investigators wrote that his conduct, at times, was "unprofessional" and in "direct violation of departmental policy."
Police say that about 11 p.m. on Saturday, Tepper, 43, who's been on the force 16 years, was trying to break up a street brawl on Elkhart Street near Edgemont when someone in the fight attacked him, leading him to shoot 21-year-old William "Billy" Panas Jr. once in the chest.
But incensed neighbors, who painted Tepper as a bully with a track record for abusing his status as a policeman, said that the fight had spilled out from a party at Tepper's home and that it had involved members of his family.
Several witnesses also claim that Tepper was visibly intoxicated during the incident.
As reported yesterday in the Daily News, Debbie Spencer said that while off duty in 2002 Tepper maced her 17-year-old son and his friend following an argument and that Tepper had failed to identify himself as a cop.
Spencer said she did not file a civilian complaint about the incident, but the mother of the other teen involved, Donna Walker, did.
In interviews with Internal Affairs investigators, Tepper said that his son had been harassed by a teenage boy who'd hung him on the fence of a neighborhood playground.
Tepper went looking for the teen but claimed that he had been stopped by a group of teenage boys who verbally assaulted and surrounded him. Tepper admitted to macing at least one of the teens and to twice drawing his personal weapon in front of the crowd.
Walker and her son, Sean, claimed that Sean had been alone with his friend, not with a crowd, when Tepper approached and that they began arguing.
Neither of the boys teased Tepper's son, the reports indicate.
During the argument, Tepper choked Sean, sprayed both boys with Mace and drew his weapon, Sean Walker told investigators.
Donna Walker also recalled to police an incident two or three years earlier in which Tepper came outside with a gun after one of his relatives was hit with a snowball.
Walker's son was throwing snowballs when Tepper "came outside waving his gun around. Apparently he does that a lot," she was quoted as saying.
In the report, Donna Walker claimed that she smelled beer on Tepper's breath shortly after the incident. Spencer made the same claim to the Daily News. Tepper denied to investigators that he had been drinking.
Sean Walker and Spencer's son were charged with assault stemming from the incident and later sentenced to probation.
Tepper was "exonerated" by Internal Affairs, but an investigator wrote that he would have "been better served by waiting for uniformed on-duty officers to arrive. By failing to do so he is in violation of Commissioners Memo 98-1 Off-Duty Police Actions."
Policies outlined in that memo include that "off-duty officers will not take police action in minor family or neighborhood disputes," and that "in most off-duty situations, the best action an officer can take is to be a good witness and call 9-1-1."
In two foreboding lines in the report, the investigator notes: "All indications are that there are still ongoing tensions between P/O Tepper, his family and the youth in the area," and states that Tepper's actions could have resulted in "the very real possibility of deadly force being used by him during this confrontation."
A 1995 complaint filed by Thomas Dolt, who was 21 at the time, claims that he and his friend were harassed by Tepper, who was off duty, and that his friend, Keith Anderson, also 21, was physically assaulted.
Tepper allegedly chased the men in his private vehicle after they verbally harassed his fiancee, who was standing at Erdrick and Teesdale streets about 2:30 a.m. on April 9, 1995.
The men claimed that Tepper repeatedly bumped their car while tailing them, reached into the car when they were stopped, tore off the door handle and hit Anderson's head with his gun and fist.
Anderson was treated at a hospital for abrasions, bruises and swelling, the report said.
Tepper claimed that the men hit him in the leg as they sped away, and that he was dragged 60 to 100 feet, but was not injured. He also denied hitting the men.
Although Tepper was off-duty, he was wearing an untucked police shirt and pants with no identification or badge, the report said.
Though Tepper claimed to investigators that he had drunk only two or three "pony bottles" of beer at a private residence before the incident, two officers who were interviewed said that they believed he'd been drinking and that Tepper had told them he'd gone to a bar.
One officer claimed that she'd said to Tepper that "he had no business being in a bar in a uniform" and that he replied that "no one will know that I was in a bar," according to the report.
Internal Affairs investigators determined that Tepper had been in a bar in partial uniform, a violation of departmental policy.
Investigators found that the complainants, Tepper's witnesses and Tepper's version of events all seemed to be "lacking the whole truth."
The report also found that Tepper should have notified police radio of the incident, instead of pursuing the men in his private car.
In the third pertinent complaint, Ronald Spencer was stopped by Tepper in 2001 on Penn Street near Cheltenham for fitting the description of a wanted man (he was later determined not to be that man). He claimed that Tepper punched him in the head during the stop.
Spencer, 19 at the time, was taken into the 15th district, at Harbison Avenue and Levick Street, to be identified because he refused to give his name. He said that he was released only after he agreed to apologize to Tepper and another officer but that it wasn't clear to him what the apology was for.
Spencer's claim about the apology was corroborated by his mother, who was brought in to identify him, and his cell mate, according to reports. The physical-abuse allegations were "not sustained," the report said.
Internal Affairs investigators found that Tepper and the other officer had been "unprofessional in their attempts to extract an apology from Spencer before his release from the cell block."
In the four other civilian complaints involving Tepper, he played only marginal roles.