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Allegheny County Council Strives To 'Find Common Ground’ On Police Review Board

An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
A bill that would have created a countywide police review board in Allegheny County was defeated in a 9-6 vote in August of 2019. Democratic councilor DeWitt Walton re-introduced the legislation in January.

A proposal to create a countywide police review board could have better prospects this year after Allegheny County Council blocked the idea during its last session. But at a meeting of council's Public Safety Committee meeting Tuesday, Democratic councilor Liv Bennett said the bill must change first.

“We are at a place where this legislation has failed, and so we need to get it to a place where it’s going to pass,” said Bennett, a first-term councilor who chairs the committee.

Democrat DeWitt Walton reintroduced the measure without changes in January. It would establish a board to investigate allegations of police misconduct, though only the county police department would be required to participate. Municipal forces and the Allegheny County Sheriff could choose to opt in, or to have the board review their law-enforcement policies and practices rather than pass judgment on individual officers.

Some councilors who opposed the bill last year said Tuesday they could support a tweaked version.

“As long as we maintain an open mind, and we talk these things through and we respect where each other is coming from, I’m confident we’ll be able to find … some common ground that we can agree upon,” said Republican Sam DeMarco, one of nine councilors to vote against the board last year.

It’s not clear, however, whether DeMarco has the same tweaks in mind as those, like Bennett, who have voiced support for a review board. For example, while DeMarco has faulted the proposal for not giving police officers the right to cross-examine their accusers at public hearings, Bennett said the bill should go farther to hold officers accountable. She thinks the board should have the power to subpoena officers to appear at hearings. Under the current proposal, it would have to ask the courts to issue subpoenas.

Regardless, at Tuesday’s committee meeting, councilors largely agreed that compromise was possible, and Bennett said her committee would start that process by reaching out to experts, members of law enforcement, police-accountability activists, and residents.

“We want all stakeholders … to be a part of this so that we can come up with the best solution possible,” Bennett said.

Democratic councilor Paul Klein noted that he and Walton had already led four public hearings on the proposed board, and that they had consulted with experts and police on the original bill.

But on Tuesday, councilors expressed hope that by doubling down on efforts to solicit a range of perspectives, they could craft a new proposal capable of winning a majority of council support.

Bennett said she expects council to vote on the board by the end of July.

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.
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