Young female chief faces off with Pa. state trooper, raising allegations of bias, bullying
MOUNT JEWETT, Pa. – MOUNT JEWETT, Pa. (AP) — Nataliya Miroslavna has a reputation for writing lots of speeding tickets, but it's a ticket the young police chief was given by a state police trooper that has the town's 1,070 residents buzzing.
Trooper Dale Vukovich Jr. ticketed Miroslavna — on her way to work, in full uniform — for allegedly driving 51 mph in a 45 mph zone just outside town in November. Miroslavna, 26, contends Vukovich falsely claimed that she was driving "erratically" to justify stopping her as payback for rejecting his advances and because of complaints about his bullying.
Miroslavna challenged the ticket and lost. But her complaints have prompted an internal state police investigation — and a debate whether this hamlet near the Allegheny National Forest, 130 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, is ready for a young, female chief.
Miroslavna, who was hired four years ago, said she was fighting a speeding ticket, not trying to create a "cause celebre."
It's too late for that, said Dorothy Schulz, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
"It's totally irrespective of whether she's right or wrong, because she'll be calling attention to herself and her little town," said Schulz, a retired New York City commuter police captain who penned a history of female police chiefs. "And, she's bringing up the issue of whether or not police should ticket their own, which police don't like to talk about."
But the townsfolk sure do.
"I laughed because she got a ticket and I think she was stupid for fighting it," said Cheryl Flickinger, 43, who owns a pizza shop.
Flickinger claims the chief is headstrong and condescending but acknowledges the borough has never been better policed.
When Miroslavna was out with an injury for several weeks, speeding logging trucks and other vehicles killed four dogs on the highway near her pizza shop. Now that she's back, they know better, Flickinger said.
Plus, she says, the chief is great with children: stopping to toss a football; paying for pizza when Miroslavna screens rented movies at the fire hall to entertain the kids every few months; and buying 80 children presents for the chief's Christmas party.
Linda Kellar, 61, who manages a coffee shop down the street, believes Vukovich was getting even with Miroslavna for rejecting his advances. To Kellar, Miroslavna's only sin is being an attractive young woman.
"Remember, we're from a small town in a small area and they can't adjust," Kellar said. "Well, hello! It's the 21st century."
State police spokeswoman Lt. Myra Taylor said only she can speak for Vukovich and his supervisors, including the regional commander who took Miroslavna's formal complaint against Vukovich on Dec. 1. As part of the internal affairs investigation, the state attorney general will determine if criminal charges are warranted against Vukovich.
Taylor wouldn't respond to Miroslavna's claims about Vukovich because of the internal investigation, but said "we have had dealings with the chief in the past," including another trooper who pulled her over for driving 90 mph but didn't ticket her.
As for Vukovich's ticket, Taylor said the trooper's speedometer showed the chief was driving 15 mph over the limit, but he used his discretion in writing her up for driving 6 mph over.
Miroslavna said she carefully drove no more than 3 to 4 mph above the speed limit because she saw Vukovich following her. She fessed up to "stupidly" driving 90 mph two years ago, saying she deserved a ticket and didn't ask for the break she got.
Complicating matters is that troopers from Vukovich's barracks answer borough police calls whenever Miroslavna's three-officer department is off-duty.
Miroslavna says she's just demanding respect.
She claims Vukovich made repeated overtures that culminated sometime in 2007 when the weightlifting buff approached her patrol car without a shirt on.
At the time, Vukovich lived near the spot where Miroslavna parked to wait for speeders.
"And, I'm telling you, he washed his vehicle about five times that day. He motioned to me to roll down the window and his chest, his bare chest, was in my face. Finally, I told him, 'Dale, I'm not interested,'" Miroslavna said. "That's, unfortunately, where things changed. He became very irate with me."
Since then, Miroslavna alleges Vukovich twice pushed her at a local judge's office, once shouting threats to arrest her for some perceived procedural beef.
At the barracks for a state police corporal's retirement party in 2008, Vukovich allegedly combined her name with a profanity and told Miroslavna, "You belong in the kitchen wearing an apron and holding a baby and not doing this job."
Miroslavna said she didn't file a formal complaint until after the speeding ticket because she previously tried going directly to Vukovich's supervisors. She contends the supervisors were sympathetic and even told her others had complained of bullying by Vukovich. Since the ticket, however, she said they have accused her of making the allegations as sour grapes.
Schulz, the expert on female chiefs, said it's so rare for an officer to ticket a chief that she's sure of one thing: "The fact that he would stop her and ticket her already indicates that there's a back story."
Unfair or not, Schulz said young female police leaders rub some people the wrong way because they "don't look like" a chief. Small-town politics only complicates matters.
Exhibit A: The retired state police corporal, Robin LeViere, has since been elected mayor, making him Miroslavna's boss.
LeViere doesn't remember Vukovich's unsavory remarks at his party, but carefully notes he doesn't doubt Miroslavna's recollection of them.
As Vukovich's former supervisor, LeViere said he also heard "talk on the streets" of Vukovich's bullying ways, but never got a formal complaint about it.
"What I'm hoping to accomplish is to keep the peace between the state police and my borough," LeViere said. "If you can't get along with your neighbor, how do you expect countries to get along?"