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Pittsburgh should create a policy banning police from hate groups, law professor says

David Harris

In May, an audit by the Pittsburgh City Controller's Office and the Independent Citizen's Police Review Board of the police department found that the city needed to clarify its policy on officers affiliated with hate groups or white supremacist groups.

Part of the report's findings showed racial disparities in arrests for offenses such as marijuana possession. Black residents were more likely to be arrested than white residents for marijuana charges, even though it is decriminalized in the city. The report suggested that the bureau should identify officers who drive such disparities.

It also recommended a "zero-tolerance policy against officer affiliations with hate groups and violent paramilitary associations." The audit found that the city's policy should clarify officers can be terminated if they are part of any such groups and that they would not be allowed to testify in court, as their credibility would be questioned.

David Harris is a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. He said the recommendations should be put into place, but there is a chance that it could be argued as an infringement on free speech.

"The argument is 'we have a right as Americans to speak our minds,' and that is generally true," he said. But "when we talk about public sector jobs, they can exclude people who have these kind of affiliations because that association would interfere with their ability to carry out the jobs they have as officers."

Harris said he would anticipate legal challenges if this policy was implemented but that the city would likely win.

Harris said a policy like this could stand on its own as a reason to get rid of officers.

"To look at [an officer's complaints] in hindsight could be tempting once you discover an officer is part of a far-right or white supremacist group; we view those things in a different light," he said. "But this kind of policy, you don't need to do that. It tells you enough about the person ... we don't need to look at incidents. A proper policy like this could result in dismissal."

Mayor Ed Gainey has prioritized addressing disparities in policing and building the community's trust in police.