Activists Champion County Police Review Board, But Pittsburgh Board Shows The Idea Could Have Limits

Jul 24, 2018

An effort to create a countywide civilian police review board has gained momentum since a police officer shot and killed 17-year-old Antwon Rose last month.

Two weeks ago, a closely divided Allegheny County Council voted to hold up to four public meetings on how to form such a board.

But as the city of Pittsburgh has learned, establishing such a board may be the easy part.

Khalid Raheem has championed the board for the past couple of years. He said he discussed it with a county council member shortly before Rose, who was unarmed, was fatally shot by East Pittsburgh Officer Michael Rosfeld. Raheem said the idea has gotten more traction since the shooting.

“This young man was murdered by cops – almost the same type of situation that gave birth to the creation of a citizens police review board for the city of Pittsburgh,” Raheem told a small crowd outside the Allegheny County Courthouse before the council vote.

Pittsburgh voters passed a referendum to establish the Citizen Police Review Board in 1997, two years after black motorist Jonny Gammage died at the hands of suburban police. Gammage died of asphyxiation after officers pulled him over and pinned him to the ground.

The incident sparked public outcry, and the referendum passed by a double-digit margin. The Pittsburgh board has investigated complaints of police misconduct for the past 20 years.

Raheem believes Allegheny County’s 106 municipal police forces should have similar oversight.

“We need to have consistent rules as we move from one municipality to the next,” Raheem said.

Beth Pittinger is the longtime executive director for Pittsburgh’s seven-member board. She questions whether a similar approach will work countywide.

For one thing, the county can’t require municipalities – which manage their own police departments – to participate.

“So, it becomes a voluntary participation,” Pittinger said. “There has to be an incentive, and there has to be a consequence if you don’t [participate]."

State Senator Wayne Fontana (D-Brookline) has pledged to introduce legislation to establish a Civilian Police Review Board with jurisdiction over communities in Allegheny County.

In the meantime, however, that power resides with local governments. And even in Pittsburgh, the board has limited authority.

Pittsburgh’s board has received about 1,200 sworn complaints since 1998. Many of those complaints were dropped or dismissed – sometimes because the complainant disappeared, or because investigation showed the allegations were unfounded.

There have been public hearings in about 90 cases. In nearly half of them, the board found an officer engaged in misconduct.

The board couldn’t take remedial action, though, because disciplinary authority lies with other city authorities, which rely on a separate Office of Municipal Investigations to investigate conduct. The review board can merely recommend particular types of discipline – and more than half the time the chief of police has rejected its findings.

Union rules also limit the board's power. Pittinger remembers that in its first case, the board advised that an officer be suspended for 90 days without pay – well above what was allowed under the police contract with the city.

“You weren’t going to 30 days, let alone 90 days,” Pittinger added.

Pittinger acknowledged that some activists fault the board for not judging officers more harshly, but said the board must be even-handed.

“I think a lot of the community bias, which to a large extent in my own personal opinion is – that bias tends toward discrediting police and to be anti-authority and anti-police,” she said.

“You can have that opinion, you can have that – we can’t. And we won’t."

Barney Oursler, an activist who campaigned to create Pittsburgh’s board, said he sees value in the board, despite its limits.

“Getting the truth out really was the purpose,” he said. "[A]ctually getting action to enforce any kind of discipline was going to take political pressure."

Oursler said that grassroots pressure eventually waned. But Raheem said future activism would enforce the recommendations of a countywide board.

“So that could be protest, marches, demonstration,” he said. “It could be electoral politics."

Pittinger said Pittsburgh's board has exerted influence by cooperating with the city and police . She said the board advises both entities on policies and procedures that have helped to improve hiring, training, and other practices.

“That’s probably the most effective” task the board undertsakes, she said. "But it’s also the thing that nobody really knows we do."

Such work could be useful in a place like the community where Antwon Rose was shot. When announcing homicide charges against Rosfeld, the police officer, District Attorney Stephen Zappala said East Pittsburgh appeared to have no policies on the books at all.