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Mayor Gainey begins tapping community activists for new police advisory panel

Gene J. Puskar

A new community advisory board for Pittsburgh’s chief of police is beginning to take shape — though questions remain about its scope and purpose.

Mayor Ed Gainey announced earlier this month that the panel would soon investigate use-of-force incidents by Pittsburgh’s Bureau of Police, days after one such incident Downtown drew criticism from city residents.

The group, Gainey told reporters, would “consist of community leaders who will draw on their experience and a variety of experts in public safety personnel to discuss what happened, what we learned and what policies we may need to change in order to best serve the public.”

But who exactly will be appointed to the board, and what power it may have over policy changes, remains to be seen. It’s also unclear how the new group might interact with the city’s longstanding independent Citizen Police Review Board.

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Gainey’s office said the advisory board was conceptualized as part of the mayor’s public safety “Plan for Peace,” established last year. It would allow the police chief to consult with community members, activists and academics about how to make policing more equitable. But the city held off on forming the board until the new police chief was installed.

According to mayoral spokesperson Maria Montaño, “The timing became much more important,” after video of a violent arrest along Smithfield Street last month sparked controversy. She now estimates that the board will be up and running by the end of the month.

“We moved it forward a little bit quicker than we thought we were going to, but we're really excited to get this up and running,” she said.

Some police-accountability advocates are wary — including at least one who may well be named to the the panel.

Brandi Fisher, the president and CEO of the Alliance for Police Accountability, said that she's had a preliminary conversation with Gainey's office about joining the board. And while she thinks "it's a great idea," she admitted to being “over taskforces being formed as a response to abuse."

“There are a ton of recommendations from the task force that [former Mayor] Peduto put together. There are a ton of recommendations from the work of a lot of nonprofit organizations,” she said. “Right now, we should be focused on implementing some of this stuff.”

'Are those policies sufficient?'

The new advisory panel's members will be chosen by chief Larry Scirotto, and will convene after critical use-of-force incidents. But in the early days, members will also look at previous incidents, including the arrest of Jim Rogers, who died the day after officers used a Taser to subdue him.

“They'll be sort of empaneled to look at those things on a consistent, ongoing basis,” explained Montaño. “To examine what policies were in play, and [ask], are those policies sufficient to create the kind of environment that we want to be able to build out those strong community-police relationships?”

The advisory board would be able to access materials — including internal documents, policies, and body-camera footage and other materials — not often released to the public.

But Montaño said the administration is “still looking to figure out what that transparency aspect of this looks like,” and couldn’t say whether the board would be obliged to publicly share the results of its investigations.

As it establishes the panel, the Gainey administration has been consulting with experts in police reform in both Pennsylvania and Arizona. In Tucson, a 15-member panel was formed to evaluate policing in 2020, and Gainey plans to seek guidance from experts there. Montaño said the chief may consider asking one of those outside experts to join the board.

She added that the group could also be asked to help craft new police policies.

“Is there a change in training that needs to be taken under [consideration]? Are there different ways to accomplish different objectives for the bureau? These are all things that are citizen-led committee would be tasked with,” she said.

However, the board will have no say in how to discipline an officer found to have violated a policy.

“This committee won't have a role in shaping any sort of disciplinary actions,” Montaño said. “That primarily will be held by — obviously — the mayor and the bureau itself.”

Montaño said the nominations to the board won’t need to come before council, since Scirotto will be in charge of selecting and inviting members. It’s unclear how long members would be appointed and whether Scirotto will be empowered to dismiss them.

'I would prefer a proactive thing'

The final list of members has not yet been determined, according to the mayor’s office, but it is expected to feature faces familiar from Gainey’s other police accountability efforts.

Fisher, of the Alliance for Police Accountability, is not the only local activist to have spoken with the Gainey administration about joining the board. So did Miracle Jones, director of policy and advocacy at 1Hood Media.

Jones served as a community adviser to the city when it hired Larry Scirotto as the chief of police in May. She said she's concerned about whether the board will be able to advise on policies proactively, instead of waiting for incidents of force to happen.

“I would prefer we have more of a proactive thing,” Jones said. “We would look at policies and potentially give input from start to finish [and] bring community in and have an open and transparent process.”

Fisher said she expressed a tentative interest in joining the board when Gainey's office contacted her late last week. A longtime police-reform activist in Pittsburgh, she supported Gainey during his mayoral campaign. Her organization has partnered with the Black Political Empowerment Project to host community engagement events with Scirotto this fall.

However, she has some reservations about how much members will be able to share information.

“I don't want to be in a position where we go from being advocates for the community or amplifiers of community voices to being a part of bureaucracy," she said.

Both Fisher and Jones said they disagreed with the administration’s recent evaluation of a violent arrest on Aug. 25 along Smithfield Street.

Videos shared by bystanders online appear to depict Jashon Martin, a Black man, on the ground surrounded by six officers attempting to handcuff him. In the video, an officer appears to punch Martin in the face multiple times before another officer reaches over in an apparent attempt to stop him. Later in the video, one officer is heard saying, “He’s reaching towards something.” Martin replies, “I’m not reaching towards nothing,” but another officer appears to strike Martin with his knee.

The criminal complaint filed against Martin alleges that he was involved in drug deals that evening and concealed a weapon after fighting with another man. It also claims that “a fixed blade knife was recovered from the ground near where Martin initially resisted arrest.”

A week later, Scirotto told reporters that the preliminary investigation determined that the officer’s actions were “objectively reasonable,” and that police would continue to “tirelessly” pursue drug offenses along Smithfield Street.

“Those individuals that are participating in violence and narcotics sales will continue to get the full focus on the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police," Scirotto pledged.

'We have the mandate'

Other investigations into Martin's arrest, including one by the Citizen Police Review Board, are already ongoing. And it is unclear how the new advisory group would interact with the board, which was created after voters approved a 1997 ballot question.

The volunteer board investigates citizen complaints about police officer misconduct and makes procedural and other recommendations to the city. The executive director of the CPRB, Beth Pittinger, noted that the board already reviews policies as well as individual misconduct complaints.

“When it comes to the overall review of policies, procedures, incidents and complaints, that rests and will continue to reside with the independent Citizen Police Review Board,” Pittinger argued. “We have the mandate.”

Montaño stressed that unlike the independent CPRB, the new panel "is going to be nestled specifically within the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police in order to be able to provide guidance and support in that work.”

Pittinger agreed it’s “the prerogative” of the mayor and the chief “to have an internal group of folks that they can bounce off of.” But she argued that review board members and the agency's staff are better positioned to advise on policy.

“This isn’t just a good community activist group that [has]… an opinion about police and what we’re comfortable with them doing,” Pittinger said. “Our investigators are certified oversight professionals," and staff has "a good working relationship with the people writing the policies, and that's in spite of whoever the chief may be or may have been."

Some community activists have criticized the CPRB as ineffective.

“I don't believe that the citizen police board really has a lot of teeth and authority on its own,” claimed MAN-E, an advocacy and policy civic engagement coordinator at 1Hood Media. But he hopes Gainey's advisory body and the review board would “complement each other” and work together on shared goals.

“The Citizen Review Board doesn’t have any real power,” Fisher said: Disciplinary decisions are handled internally after a review by the Office of Municipal Investigations, whose findings and recommendations may differ from those of the review board.

“If the chief doesn’t want to go by the recommendation," Fisher said, "he just doesn’t have to.”

Pittinger said it’s “simply not true" that her board is powerless, and said its critics don't attend meetings to understand how it functions.

“The activist community has a lot to say about oversight, but they're not telling the people that do the oversight," she said.

Pittinger explained that CPRB investigations may seem to take a long time because her group has to account for the laws, accreditation requirements and collective bargaining provisions that govern policing.

“It’s not as simple as saying we just need to change our use-of-force policy,” she argued. “There are laws involved in that.”

Despite the tension, both city leaders and Pittinger argue the new advisory board won’t impact the work CPRB has been mandated to do.

“We’ve got a job to do, and we're going to continue to do it,” Pittinger said. “And if it duplicates [with the other board], so be it.”

'There is actual political will'

During his 2021 mayoral campaign, Gainey drew support from activists who wanted to see the city disinvest from the police. But once in office, he has pledged to increase support for officers.

“There is a stark difference between what politicians or what officials say compared to how police are actually operating,” said MAN-E who cited as an example the city's beefed-up police patrols in response to violent crime in the neighborhood this year. “The overall culture of policing, it hasn't really changed.”

Fisher criticized the administration’s response to a recent $180,000 police staffing study which recommended the bureau severely reduce patrol officers by reassigning them to other departments. Scirotto largely dismissed the study’s findings and hasn’t pledged to follow any of the recommendations.

“There's no real clarity on the direction that the chief is going when it comes to the staffing study,” Fisher said.

But Jones is optimistic that the political tide is turning. “There is now actual political will in addition to community support to get these things done,” she argued. With a new Allegheny County Executive on the way next year, she said, "We could have a totally revamped way of addressing issues of reducing crime if people would just really get on board and stop trying to delay the reforms that people have voted for.”

And in the meantime, she's not letting Gainey off the hook.

“I think that people elected Gainey because he was someone who cared and he was someone who understood the issues,” she said. “So the buck is stopping with him because he's someone who has the ability to get things done.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.