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After Years Of Debate, County Council Passes Police Review Board

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA

By a margin of 9 votes to 5, Allegheny County Council passed a measure to create a county police review board Tuesday night, concluding a years-long debate over police oversight with a harrowing account of one councilor’s experience of misconduct.

“We need this. We cannot do this any longer,” said bill sponsor councilor DeWitt Walton, his voice cracking with emotion after recounting two incidents in which his life was threatened by police officers during traffic stops in Indiana. “It happened to me. If it happened to me, it happens to too many. We got to do what’s right.”

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald is expected to sign the bill, which will establish the nine-member review board at the start of 2022. Its scope will be limited to jurisdiction over the county’s own police department: The county has no authority over municipal police departments, although they can “opt in” and accept its oversight if they wish.

Opponents of the bill predicted that few departments would do so, and that the bill would disappoint those who hoped it would address concerns about police accountability that have rocked the nation since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd a year ago.

Republican Sam DeMarco said that the only complaint against county police he could recall had to do with a 2014 incident in which cars parked in North Park were ticketed on Mother’s Day — and that local departments would simply ignore the board.

“I think that we can all agree that there's a problem and that the connection between the community and law enforcement — that relationship is frayed,” he said. Review board supporters, he said “are looking for some sort of way to provide transparency and accountability. Unfortunately, I don't believe this bill and this board is structured is what's going to deliver it for them.”

Walton’s account was the most dramatic moment in a vote whose result was preordained but a long time coming.

Council had rejected a review board proposalin 2019, but elections that year delivered a new pro-review majority which took office the following year.

Tom Duerr, whose own victory over board opponent Sue Means flipped one vote toward reform, recalled on Tuesday night that his support of the measure had been key to that win.

“The people of my district spoke loud and clear in 2019 on this issue,” he said. “I intend to keep my promise to them tonight.”

“Oversight and accountability in and of itself is not justice. It does not bring back the lives of all of the unarmed people of color who have been killed,” he added. “But it is a step towards justice.”

Even after those elections tilted the field, however, the review board was beset by differences between council members and Fitzgerald, who finally coalesced behind a somewhat scaled-back version of the proposal that gave the county executive more power to appoint members. And Tuesday’s vote could have been delayed still further.

Councilor Nick Futules urged council to delay the vote until its next meeting in May. Council had previously scheduled a public hearing on the bill for Wednesday evening — one day after the vote. But while the measure was voted out of committee more quickly than expected, several councilors argued that council should hear from the public before voting on the measure.

“This is the exact opposite of transparency,” said Republican Cindy Kirk. She and others argued that while there had been public hearings on earlier versions of the bill, the legislation passed Tuesday had largely been discussed only in committee meetings, which are conducted publicly but which provide little means of public input.

Kirk said she had heard from constituents who said “Why do we even exist if you call for a public hearing … a month ago and now you say, ‘Sorry, we don’t really care about what you think’?”

Review supporters countered that the new bill was broadly in line with the measures that had been discussed previously — and that most had been hearing for years about the issue from people in their community.

“Either you are for additional police oversight or you're against additional police oversight. It comes down to that very simple conclusion,” said Council President Pat Catena, who said he had initially been concerned about oversight but supported the bill Tuesday.

“This is a conversation that has gone on since Jonny Gammage in the ‘90s,” said bill sponsor Liv Bennett, referring to the 1995 death of a black motorist at the hands of police. Public outcries over Gammage’s death helped lead to the creation of a review board for police in the city of Pittsburgh, though Gammage was killed by officers from Brentwood.

“To sit here and say we are not being transparent … is just a false narrative,” Bennett said. And after years of debate, she said, the time for action was now. “Folks that have lost loved ones to police shootings are desperate.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.