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Harper Remains Defiant After Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board Vote But Pauses Work With Controversial Vendor

90.5 WESA

Allegheny County Jail Warden Orlando Harper said the jail will “pause” work with a controversial training firm whose contract a county oversight board suspended last night, but in a 15-minute press conference Tuesday he strongly suggested the fight wasn’t over.

The Jail Oversight Board’s move to strike the jail’s contract with Corrections-Special Application Unit, he said, “took no consideration of the men and women working in our facility and the men and women living in our facility.”

For now, Harper said, “the C-SAU training has been paused while there is a legal review of this action.” But, he added, “we will not be suspending other [training] that is imperative for the safety and security of the officers, staff and the inmates.”

Harper had hired C-SAU after voters passed a ballot question in May that included a little-noted provision banning the use of chemical spray inside the jail. Harper said C-SAU’s training — which purportedly mixes de-escalation tactics and rubber ammunition against recalcitrant incarcerated people — was the only way to comply with such limits unless the jail wanted to return to using five-person “extraction teams” to bodily remove people in prison.

But the board on Monday night voted 4-3 to end the contract amid concerns about its lead trainer, Joseph Garcia, and the role his training may have played in a number of incidents, including the death of a prisoner in South Carolina earlier this year.

On Tuesday, Harper argued that the board’s resolution to cancel the contract had been too broad. He said that if he took the motion at face value, it would affect all manner of training — even in techniques such as administering CPR — by other firms. The argument echoed the case Harper had been making for C-SAU all along: Attempts to limit the jail’s use of tactics — whether by voters or the oversight board — would have unanticipated consequences that could make life worse for inmates.

In any case, Harper said he would continue to provide training through other vendors, so his argument may amount to little more than a broadside at the board.

A board member who voted to terminate the C-SAU contract, Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, countered that Harper’s interpretation was “just blatantly false. … The motion is very specific to Mr. Garcia and any sort of affiliated entities. … It certainly does not prohibit anything such as CPR training or other medical training.”

Wagner added that county administrators could have avoided the controversy over C-SAU if it had been more transparent in responding to the ballot initiative, which won the approval of 70% of voters.

“We're talking about the will of the voters and the public,” Wagner said. “Where the jail and the county have really erred in this process, and there are a number of different ways, is that they … reverted to a very secretive plan and a very ill-advised plan.”

Wagner said that jail officials should have engaged members of the community, as well as policy experts, to devise a workable plan.

“I think if you open yourself up to public discussion, public scrutiny, public input, we would all have a much clearer path and understanding,” she said “And that's really what I think the county administration and jail should be doing, certainly at this point.”

Harper said Tuesday that the board’s action showed “no respect for me and my 33 years of correctional experience, no concern or care about my employees and certainly no thought about the ramifications of the vote on the inmates here.”

Questions remain about whether the board’s vote is legally binding because the state law enumerating its powers still leaves power over contracting in the hands of the chief executive’s office.

In the meantime, Wagner’s office has refused to pay C-SAU the $182,770 it billed the county after providing six weeks of training at the jail. She called the invoice that the company sent her office “ridiculously vague,” and noted that it did not detail the cost of services or hourly rates for workers.

The controller said she also won’t approve any payments for less-lethal weapons that the county purchased from Lightfield Less Lethal Research when it approved the C-SAU contract.

Wagner said the two contracts appear to be linked because corrections officers would use the less-lethal munitions, including flashbangs, rubber slugs, and other projectiles, in conjunction with the tactics they learn from C-SAU.

Unless county administrators can provide information to convince her otherwise, Wagner said, she’ll continue to block payments to both contractors. And it will be up to those companies to sue the county to get paid, she said.

This story was updated at 4:48 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 21, to include comments from Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, a member of the county's Jail Oversight Board.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.
An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.