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Allegheny County Councilors Try Again With Scaled-Back Police Review Board Proposal

An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
It has been two-and-a-half years since Allegheny County Council members began to consider whether to establish an independent police review board.

Allegheny County Council is expected on Tuesday to take up a third, pared-back proposal to form an independent police review board.

Council has been weighing the creation of a review board since 2018. A council majority voted against an earlier proposal a year-and-a-half ago; a more recent draft of the idea had been aiming for a January vote but appears to have been withdrawn in favor of the new proposal.

“There is … a recognition of the need to move this legislation forward and a spirit of cooperation, and the realization that we have to find common ground," said DeWitt Walton, a sponsor of both the original and the new bill. "We have work to do and … there's enough energy and commitment to move it forward.”

As envisioned by the legislation, the nine-member review board would have the power to investigate allegations of police misconduct. Only the Allegheny County Police Department would be required to participate, but municipal police departments and the county sheriff’s department could opt in. (The city of Pittsburgh already has its own Citizen Police Review Board.)

Unlike earlier proposals, the latest bill does not include a “limited opt-in” provision, under which the review board would have reviewed municipalities’ law-enforcement policies and practices rather than investigate allegations against individual officers. And in cases where an initial inquiry leads to a formal investigation, the new bill would require the board to find facts based on “clear and convincing evidence” of wrongdoing – a higher standard of proof than in earlier versions of the legislation.

The new legislation also gives Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald a bigger role in choosing board members, with the executive and council each selecting four members and jointly appointing a ninth. With the exception of the joint appointment, the executive’s selections would not require council approval. Earlier legislation had given council six appointments and allowed the executive to nominate three members subject to council approval.

Councilor Liv Bennett, who chairs the committee that has reviewed previous versions of the bill, said in December that Fitzgerald’s support will likely be necessary to turn the legislation into law. Walton noted that Fitzgerald’s staff “had a role” in crafting the latest measure.

Walton and fellow Democrat Paul Klein first proposed a police review board in December 2018, six months after the police killing of 17-year-old Antwon Rose in East Pittsburgh. The bill was defeated in a 9-6 vote in December 2019. Opponents worried that it would not protect officers’ rights by, for example, barring them from cross-examining their accusers during board hearings.

Regardless, Walton introduced the legislation again in January 2020, when council began a new two-year session with a larger, more left-leaning Democratic majority. At the time, Walton said he would resist any amendments to the bill, and he was critical of a bill Bennett and others introduced in November. That legislation would have established a similar review board while also creating an ombudsperson position to inquire into reports from community members about interactions with municipal law enforcement. The ombudsperson would have posted unredacted copies of the reports and any additional findings to a publicly accessible website.

Walton said that idea was unlikely to have a "legitimate impact," but he has expressed a growing willingness to compromise in order to pass a bill. He and Klein joined with Bennett, as well as Democrats Tom Duerr and Anita Prizio to sponsor the new bill. Walton said that he and Bennett agreed to withdraw the competing proposals.

The new consensus bill does not include the ombudsperson. It does, however, spell out more thorough training criteria for board members: At the start of their one- to four-year terms, they would be required to complete training in a range of subject areas, including use of force, bias-based policing, discipline procedures, and constitutional law.

The new legislation also adds language that would give people the option to meet with the police officer against whom they’ve filed a complaint and the officer’s police chief. A review board member would try to help them reach an informal resolution rather than have the board launch a preliminary inquiry into the alleged incident.

The new proposal also guarantees “fundamental due process,” but it does not say whether cross-examination is permitted during hearings. Nor does it give either party a right to appeal the board’s conclusions to the Allegheny Common Pleas Court, recourse that existed in previous legislation.

The new bill also departs from earlier proposals by not directing the county to hire an executive director to manage the board’s work.

If approved, the legislation would take effect January 1, 2022.