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Police Facebook Group Leads To Amplified Calls For Independent Oversight

Courtesy of Friends of Austin Davis
Democratic Pennsylvania state Rep. Austin Davis has introduced legislation that would require municipal police departments to participate in independent countywide police review boards.

A private Facebook group where local police officers reportedly made racist and transphobic comments has drawn swift condemnation, with critics saying it underscored the need for accountability.

The Associated Press reported Monday that the group “Pittsburgh Area Police Breakroom” has operated for nearly four years. Its more than 2,000 members included current and former officers and police chiefs, mostly from Allegheny County, according to the AP.

The news outlet reported that some encouraged violence and harassment against Black Lives Matter protesters and law-enforcement personnel who supported them. It also discovered transphobic comments directed at former Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine, who is transgender.

Democratic state Rep. Austin Davis, of McKeesport, called the posts “disturbing.”

“It clearly shows there is some bias, particularly among the officers who made those comments,” said Davis, who represents parts of West Mifflin, where an officer was named in the AP report.

“Furthermore, I think [the Facebook group] really highlights the need for citizen police review boards,” he added.

Davis has introduced a bill to require municipal forces to participate in such boards. It mirrors legislation that state Sen. Wayne Fontana, a Pittsburgh Democrat, has also proposed. Both bills would apply to all counties but Philadelphia, which has its own Police Advisory Commission. (That body is set to be replaced by a more powerful Citizens Police Oversight Commission, which Philadelphia voters approved in November.)

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
A sign indicating the office of Pittsburgh's citizen police review board downtown.

“We have so many police departments in Allegheny County,” Davis said. “Many of them are underfunded. Many of those officers are not trained at the same level. And so there needs to be a level of accountability.”

Allegheny County Council is debating whether to create a board that local police could join voluntarily. Current law does not allow the county to mandate the participation of local departments.

“The reality is, the departments that probably would opt into it are not the departments that probably need the oversight,” Davis said.

He acknowledged, however, that the GOP majority will likely block his and Fontana’s proposals. Both bills remain in committee.

Democratic Allegheny County Councilor DeWitt Walton, who has championed a countywide police review board, supports mandatory participation for municipal forces.

On Monday, he said he was not surprised by the revelations about the police Facebook group.

“It just creates the need for greater scrutiny and accountability for each municipality,” Walton said. Police officers “hold such sensitive and powerful positions that, if they’re going to be held in high regard and respect, then their behaviors also have to be beyond reproach.”

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