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Politics & Government

Police Review Board Proposal Returns To Allegheny County Council For Vote

Bethany Hallam.jpg
Jared Murphy
90.5 WESA
After advocating to strengthen a police review board bill pending before Allegheny County Council, Democrat Bethany Hallam supported the measure in a committee vote Tues., April 20, 2021.

A committee on Tuesday approved the latest attempt by Allegheny County Council to create an independent police review board, possibly setting it up for a final vote before a public hearing on the matter is set to occur.

The proposed nine-member board would have the power to investigate allegations of police misconduct, but only the Allegheny County Police Department would be required to participate. Municipal forces and the county sheriff’s department could opt in.

Council has considered the idea in various forms for two years, and the current measure, introduced in February, is the least sweeping version.

On Tuesday, council’s public safety committee voted 4-3 in favor of the legislation. Supporters included Democrats Liv Bennett, Bethany Hallam, Paul Klein, and Bob Palmosina. Democrat Bob Macey sided with Republicans Sam DeMarco and Cindy Kirk in opposing the bill.

Hallam’s support marked a breakthrough for the legislation, after she had sought to strengthen it with a raft of amendments.

“I’ve made it very clear that I don’t love the current bill,” Hallam said. She said the proposal had been watered down after its sponsors consulted with the office of Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

But because the executive has veto power, Hallam continued, “it wasn’t worth the risk to have any amendments pass and maybe then alter his decision on whether or not to sign the bill.” Hallam noted that, just last month, Fitzgerald managed to kill a measure to enact paid sick leave even though it had easily passed council.

The public safety committee ultimately rejected the eight amendments Hallam introduced. One would have given the board more leeway to inquire into allegations of police misconduct, even when a resident does not lodge a formal complaint. Another called for panel members to represent formerly incarcerated people, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and naturalized citizens.

DeMarco also proposed a few amendments that failed in committee. They would have barred people who’ve been convicted of a crime or who reside in a municipality that already has a police oversight body from serving on the board. (The city of Pittsburgh has had its own Citizen Police Review Board since 1997.)

At Tuesday’s committee meeting, DeMarco warned that the bill would not ensure due process for officers who appear before the proposed board. In addition, he said police departments would violate their collective bargaining agreements with officers by participating in the board, while also creating civil liabilities for municipalities whose officers are found by the board to have committed misconduct.

Although council plans to invite constituents to weigh in on the bill at a public hearing Wednesday, April 28, Hallam said the body should decide the matter at its next meeting a day earlier. “Most bills that come out of committee [go] to the next full council meeting,” Hallam noted, even though she had voted last month to hold the hearing.

Democrat Nick Futules argued vigorously against that timetable.

“You’re going to circumvent it and tell the people that you don’t want to hear from them?” Futules said. “You wait 'til the full meeting. I hope this [doesn’t] get out of committee because I’m going to go after all of you publicly with the news media,” Futules warned those who favor an April 27 vote.

DeMarco and Kirk also complained that the committee had not spent enough time discussing the measure as a whole, after reviewing 10 amendments during four meetings held since early March.

But Bennett, who chairs the committee and co-sponsored the bill, dismissed those objections.

“We have had countless public meetings with interested constituents,” Bennett said. “So this argument that this has not been transparent is a bunch of baloney because this has been, and continues to be, a transparent process.”

Council’s debate over a police review board dates back to the summer of 2018, when Rankin teen Antwon Rose was fatally shot by police. Councilors voted against creating a review board in 2019. But since last year, Democratic members have proposed three versions of the bill, hoping to strike a compromise that would satisfy a majority of councilors and Fitzgerald.

Tuesday’s vote to move the bill out of committee came moments before former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty in the murder of George Floyd.