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Pittsburgh Police accreditation threatened by law to scale back traffic stops

A Pittsburgh Police hat.
Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA

The city of Pittsburgh's Bureau of Police could lose a professional seal of approval, thanks to a 2021 ordinance that instructs officers not to pull over motorists for minor violations.

The Pennsylvania Law Enforcement Accreditation Commission, or PLEAC, sent a letter to city officials in late April saying the ordinance means the department "is no longer in full compliance with the Accreditation Program and Standards."

According to the letter, that's because the commission's standards require the city to have "a written directive requiring all law enforcement personnel ... to support, obey and defend the constitution of the United States and the Pennsylvania Constitution and the laws of Pennsylvania."

The ordinance, the letter argues, will put officers at odds with that pledge by barring them from enforcing sections of the state's vehicle code.

Start your morning with today's news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

The city's ordinance identifies several traffic violations it defines as "secondary," and by themselves not grounds for pulling over a motorist. Those include driving with a lapsed registration or lapsed inspections, or driving in a car whose window views are obstructed, or with a single busted brake light.

"Where does a second-class city [as Pittsburgh is designated by law] have the authority to supersede state law?" asked James Adams, PLEAC's Accreditation Program Coordinator.

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey's office declined to comment, as did Ricky Burgess, the City Councilor who drafted the ordinance.

Pittsburgh City Council passed that bill late last year to address concerns that police were using minor offenses to single out people of color for enforcement. The goal was to reduce the potential for bias, and to improve relations between the police and the community.

Adams acknowledged that officers often use discretion when pulling motorists over, and he said the city could have simply set those priorities internally, within the department.

"To craft an ordinance that prohibits officers from enforcing the law is where the problem is," he said.

Adams said that for now, the city is still accredited. But the agency said that if the city doesn't resolve the issue, its accreditation could be revoked at a July 26 meeting.

A disproportionate reaction?
The city has been accredited since 2013. Losing that status may damage the city's reputation, but its effect on the department may be difficult to discern.

Beth Pittinger, the executive director of the Pittsburgh Independent Citizen's Police Review Board, said seeking accreditation is voluntary. It serves mostly to set standards for the department, and to build the public's confidence in it.

"It took years of hard work for the bureau to put together the required and established procedures, train officers in the standards of their practice," Pittinger said. "It's assurance to the public that this Bureau operates in a reliable manner."

There are other national accrediting groups whose approval the city could seek. But Pittinger said they are more costly and could have the same — or higher — standards as PLEAC.

University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris said the city should object to any effort to pull its accreditation. City leaders, not the bureau itself, chose to set aside just a handful of "the hundreds and hundreds of traffic ordinances and laws within state law," he said.

PLEAC's board is made up largely of local chiefs of police from around he state, and some local police chiefs expressed misgivings about the policy when it was drafted. Harris said PLEAC's move "seems like at best a disproportionate reaction, and at worst you just don't like the particular policy that the city has set."

Robert Swartzwelder, who heads the union that represents city police, said he had not been aware of the letter, but agrees the ordinance puts the city's accreditation at risk.

For his part, Adams said he wanted to see data that proved police targeted people of color for enforcement — and that the city's policy would address the problem.

"How does this correct the problem of bias?" he asked. "How does eliminating these sections of the vehicle code solve the root issue?"

Adams said PLEAC has similar concerns about a similar policy in Philadelphia.

"I had the same conversation with them," Adams said. "They got a similar letter and it will be on the agenda as well."