By CHERYL BAUER
Voting 8-6 on July 10, the Allegheny County Council narrowly approved an initiative sponsored by Council members Paul Klein and DeWitt Walton to explore the possibility of establishing a countywide citizens police review board. Approval of this measure resulted in a series of public hearings to evaluate the feasibility and need for such a review board, held from August-October throughout the county.
Over 100 municipal police departments currently exist in Allegheny County. Only the City of Pittsburgh police are subject to citizen review, authorized by referendum in 1997 in response to the killings of Jerry Jackson in April of 1995 by Pittsburgh police and Jonny Gammage in October that same year by Brentwood officers. With renewed fervor following the June 19, 2018 murder of Antwon Rose by parttime officer Michael Rosfeld in East Pittsburgh, citizens and activists urged the county council to take firm action to increase accountability of police departments across the county.
Since the public hearings concluded, the response has been mixed, as local governing bodies consider the proposition. A number of municipalities remain undecided about their participation while others, such as Harmar and Springdale, have emphatically opted-out, citing an unnecessary bureaucratic burden on an ostensibly functioning system. Concerns have also centered around funding and function, specifically interference in local police operations. On the other hand, Elizabeth Pittinger, Executive Director of the city of Pittsburgh’s Citizen Police Review Board, has noted that some elected officials in other municipalities have already reached out to her for guidance establishing similar citizen review entities in their localities.
During a press conference held November 15, 2018, community advocates proposed a general structure for the county review board, modeled after the City board. The City’s review board includes two retired city officers, ensuring representation of the law enforcement perspective. The advocates’ proposal comprised 15 members: one representative from each of the 13 districts within the county and two retired law enforcement officers. Council members have not confirmed any specifics to date, but have discussed a seven-to-nine member panel and acknowledged that the perspective of law enforcement would be welcome on the board.
Community organizers continue to encourage the council to endow the county citizens review board with authority to investigate with subpoena power, essential in order to provide effective oversight of police activities. The power of subpoena would legitimize the accountability of the police to the communities and help to ensure dispensation of the law fairly – to all citizens including law enforcement officers. Councilman Walton has expressed intent to work with state legislators to propose legislation that would reform hiring and training practices and establish statewide standards for police conduct. Councilpersons Klein and Walton are presently drafting legislation to create the board, hoping to submit it to the council for a vote by the end of the year. If the measure passes council vote, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald will be charged with final approval.
Now is the time to encourage our county council members to vote in favor of the initiative to establish the county citizens review board. County Executive Fitzgerald’s office can be contacted at 412-350-6500. Calls can be placed to county council at 412- 350-6490.
Cheryl Bauer is a member of the New People editorial collective.