By Cheryl Bauer
In the wake of the shooting of Antwon Rose in the summer of 2018, Allegheny county residents and activists amplified their call for greater accountability of county law enforcement agencies with the demand for a county-wide citizen police review board. Following four public hearing sessions in August and September 2018 to explore implementation of such a review board, County Council members DeWitt Walton and Paul Klein submitted legislation on December 18, 2018 to establish the William Russell Robinson Independent Police Review Board. The ordinance is currently under review by the Special Committee on Independent Police Review, and is intended to facilitate a greater sense of public trust in an era of rising hostilities between law enforcement and communities.
The proposed structure of the board will include nine members, all required to be county residents for at least one year prior to their appointment. Council members will nominate and select six members and the County Executive will select the remaining three, with each serving up to two terms of either three- or four-years. Like the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board, established in 1997, two seats are reserved for residents with prior direct experience in law enforcement, and current law enforcement personnel are not permitted to serve on the board. Going a step further, to ensure a balanced perspective with knowledge of the legal process beyond the enforcement of law, the county board will reserve one seat for an individual with a background as an attorney, judge, or auditor. The remaining six seats are intended to represent the diversity of the county residents, though no quotas were given. Only the Allegheny County Police Department activities are subject to review under the ordinance, but other municipalities can opt-in to participate. Non-municipal police agencies, such as university police departments, would not be eligible for participation.
A number of provisions with respect to the necessary function of law enforcement have been included in the ordinance, as well as deterrents for abuse of the complaint process. Civilian complaints submitted to the board for review could be submitted in person, by phone, by email, or electronically via the county website, and will require a signed and notarized statement from the complainant. Complaints found to be false accusations will be escalated to the County District Attorney for investigation. With affirmative votes of at least six members, the board can initiate preliminary inquiries as may be necessary, without receiving a complaint. The board may also request officers, documents, and other evidence or testimony to be presented in support of their investigations, and if such a request is not fulfilled as defined within the ordinance, the board may petition the Court of Common Pleas to compel compliance.
With respect for the necessity of cooperation by law enforcement agencies and officers, any statements provided by law enforcement officers in cooperation with an investigation conducted by the board will not be shared with any law enforcement agent or agency without consent of the officer giving the statement. The board may also initiate studies, hold public hearings, and make recommendations on policy matters; however, the board may not review any department’s policies, training procedures or operational guidelines without the department’s cooperation, and the board will not have the authority to file charges if the findings of an investigation confirm misconduct. If misconduct was found to have occurred, the complainant and officer(s) involved will be notified, as well as the individual with authority over the department involved.
The full ordinance, Bill no. 10909-18, as well as the minutes from the public hearings held in the fall, can be viewed on the County website at https://www.alleghenycounty.us/county-council/police-review-board-meetings.aspx. If the measure passes council vote, it will be sent to County Executive Rich Fitzgerald for approval. County residents interested in voicing support for the bill can contact the county council at 412-350-6490. County Executive Fitzgerald’s office can be contacted at 412-350-6500.
Cheryl Bauer is a member of the New People Editorial Collective