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Pittsburgh 'Well Served' By Police Review Board, Audit Says, While Urging More Funding

Deanna Garcia
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh has been “well served” by its Citizen Police Review Board but could use more funding and outreach, City Controller Michael Lamb said after releasing an audit of its operations Wednesday.

After the board was established by a 1997 voter referendum, he said, “there was significant hostility between the review board and the police bureau. But over time, crediting both the police and ... the board members, we've got a situation now where we have much greater cooperation. … And that’s been great for Pittsburgh.”

The board receives and investigates complaints about police misconduct, carrying out investigations and public hearings where it deems warranted. During the administration of Mayor Bill Peduto, it has processed about 600 complaints a year, a slight but noticeable decline from years before.

The 56-page audit shows that the board still faces challenges, chief among them the fact that state law allows it only to recommend, not impose, discipline.

“We hope that our legislature takes a look at [that],” Lamb said. “We want to be able to protect our citizens from bad actors. And sometimes [those] bad actors are our members of the bureau.”

The audit shows, in fact, that a comparatively small number of officers are responsible for a disproportionately large number of complaints. Nearly 700 officers who have been on the force in the last decade had either 1 or 2 complaints lodged against them. But over 100 had five complaints or more: 13 were in the double digits, including one who faced 57 complaints. (That officer, the audit says, is no longer on the force.)

The challenge of addressing officers with a long litany of complaints is not new: Lamb's predecessor Tom Flaherty identified "a few bad apples" as a problem in an audit of police complaints a quarter-century ago. But overall, Lamb said the good news was that “The total number of allegations is down” over the past decade. The percentage of complaints involving alleged use-of-force violations — arguably the most serious — has also dropped, from over 10 percent to under 5 percent in the last two years studied by the audit.

“That's in a period of time when the number of officers has actually gone up,” Lamb noted. “So I think it's fair to say that we're doing better.'

And a chief recommendation of the audit is to increase funding for the board, whose annual budget has ranged between $550,000 and $600,000 in recent years. Lamb said the staff “have been able to keep up with their caseload, but we were actually making our recommendation that their funding should be increased.”

Additional money would allow the board to do more public outreach, Lamb said, and to provide “more analysis of crime data and neighborhood data and the kind of things that really would help them do their job better and help serve the city of Pittsburgh better.”

The audit recommends tying the review board’s budget to the budget for the police bureau it oversees: Lamb said the review board budget be pegged at 2 percent of what the police spend on salaries.

That would boost the review board’s funding to over $1.6 million, but Lamb stressed that the precise amount was less important than linking the board’s budget to that of the police. The money could be spent on things like a community liaison or additional investigators: As it stands, the board has three investigators to oversee complaints against a 900-member force.

The audit also suggests that the agency expand its efforts to recruit the members of its 7-person board, by giving outside community groups a formal role in proposing nominees who have relevant expertise or can help do outreach, particularly in communities of color.

“We want that kind of expertise on this board,” Lamb said. “And I think that's one way that we can really broaden the perspective of this board.”

In a written response to the audit, the board responded warily, saying its “work must be independent, impartial, and objective.”

Lamb also urged that the city provide set rules for accessing footage from police body-cams and dashboard-mounted cameras — records that can be decisive for an investigation and public debate over policing. So far, Lamb said, “The review board has been able to get access to that information and to do that footage. But we want to make sure that it's done consistently,” by providing formal guidelines for release.

And as the debate around policing continues to swirl, Lamb noted that his office was in the early stages of auditing the Bureau of Police itself.

“We're going to be asking a lot of questions” about police operations, he said. “Police cameras, for instance, when are they on, when are they off?” Such concerns, he said, “have come up locally and nationally … and we're going to be asking a lot of those kind of questions.”

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.