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Allegheny County Council Takes Up Proposal To Ban Neck Restraints, But Hurdles Lie Ahead

Chris Pizzello
George Floyd and Eric Garner both died after police put them in neck restraints.

Under newly proposed legislation at Allegheny County Council, the county could join cities and states across the country in banning chokeholds and strangleholds. But as with previous attempts at county council to rein in the power of police, the bill’s impact could be limited by rules that bar the county from setting municipal police policy.

On Tuesday, Democratic county councilors Liv Bennett, Bethany Hallam, and Anita Prizio introduced the bill, which would broadly outlaw the use of neck restraints. 

Before council met, Hallam acknowledged that although neck-restraint policies tend to apply to law enforcement, county council likely could not impose the proposed ban on local police forces other than the Allegheny County Police Department. Democrat Pat Catena reiterated that point at Tuesday’s meeting, saying “We all know that we unfortunately can’t enforce something like this [neck-restraint bill] … over [any law enforcement agency other than] the Allegheny County Police.”

Hallam and Bennett previously tried to work around this obstacle in June, when they proposed a ban on less-lethal munitions such as the bean-bag rounds and pepper spray Pittsburgh police officers used to break up Black Lives Matter protests in the spring. In that instance, Hallam and Bennett introduced the weapons ban as a public health ordinance. They hoped that other councilors would view the proposal as fitting within the county's authority to regulate public health.

But in line with the misgivings Catena expressed Tuesday, a council committee instead revised the bill to apply only to the Allegheny County Police Department. The legislation ultimately failed in a July vote. Some councilors had worried that the policy would lead county police officers to resort to using deadly force in lieu of less-lethal weapons, or not to intervene in dangerous situations at all.

Hallam predicts her colleagues will find themselves in a tougher spot when it comes to the issue of chokeholds and strangleholds, two different forms of neck restraints that can each be deadly. Chokeholds restrict air flow to the brain, while strangleholds cut off the organ’s blood supply. George Floyd and Eric Garner died after police put them in neck holds.

“The message here is that we won’t tolerate chokeholds in any form, in any aspect of society,” Hallam said. “[A neck-restraint ban is] something that is long overdue and should have never been legal for anyone to use in the first place.”

Council’s bill will go to the public safety committee before it can return to the full body for a vote.

Another proposal, which would bar the county from collecting revenue on the sale of items to people housed at the Allegheny County Jail, will head to the budget and finance committee. Bennett and Hallam introduced the legislation following reports earlier this summer that the county earns commissions on phone calls and commissary items purchased by inmates. County officials say those revenues total more than $2 million annually.

Hallam said she has long wanted to bar such revenues, given her own experience being incarcerated at the county jail for several months on drug-related offenses. “It wasn’t just me who was being punished: It was everyone who I loved who wanted to talk to me on the phone, or make sure I was able to buy myself food or hygiene products,” she said.

“Having someone removed from society and placed in a cage is enough of a punishment as it is,” Hallam added. She noted, too, that many people housed at the jail have not been convicted of a crime but are awaiting trial.

In a statement, county officials said that revenues from commissary sales go to the county’s Inmate Welfare Fund, which is meant to support jail programs and facilities. Money earned on phone calls, the statement added, go “right back into the nearly $90 million annual cost to operate the jail, more than 90 percent of which is funded by property tax.”

Separately, county council chose to weigh in Tuesday on stalled contract negotiations between Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staffers and the company that owns the newspaper, Block Communications Inc. Last week, the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh and two other unions voted overwhelmingly to strike, pending approval by the guild’s executive council and the national president of the Communication Workers of America.

Shortly before council's meeting Tuesday, Republican Sam DeMarco submitted a non-binding motion to urge the parties “to resume negotiations immediately.” While he admitted his reluctance to get “between a labor union and management of an organization,” DeMarco expressed dismay that Post-Gazette employees have not received a raise in 14 years.

DeMarco introduced his resolution so late in the day that Democrat DeWitt Walton had not seen it before the council meeting. Within seconds of scanning the language, however, the long-time labor organizer exclaimed, “Oh, hell yeah … I’m on board.”

Council passed the motion unanimously.

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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