Six months after a white East Pittsburgh police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teen, Allegheny County Council has taken up legislation to create an independent board to review allegations of officer misconduct.
At a council meeting Tuesday, bill co-sponsor Paul Klein (D-Squirrel Hill) said the measure is one way to meet demands for increased oversight of police.
“We know well that the creation of such a board will not cure all that ails us,” Klein said. “Our racial challenge in this country has deep roots and is sadly part of our identity as a nation.”
Activists intensified calls for a civilian police review board following the death of 17-year-old Antwon Rose in June. East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld is charged in Rose's death, accused of firing on him as he fled a vehicle suspected of being involved in an earlier shooting.
The proposed board would have the power to investigate complaints of officer misconduct, and to research policies on police-community relations more broadly. But it would not be able to discipline officers. Instead, it would recommend disciplinary action, with police chiefs making the final decision.
Moreover, the county could only require its own police department to participate. Under current state law, the Allegheny County sheriff’s department and municipal forces, like the one that employed Rosfeld, would have to opt in. Tuesday’s bill also gives local governments the option to limit their participation so that the board would only review their law-enforcement policies and practices and not investigate allegations against individual officers.
Bill co-sponsor DeWitt Walton (D-Hill District) said some municipal leaders in Allegheny County have expressed interest in taking part. He also noted that state Sen. Wayne Fontana is pursuing legislation that would require all of the county’s municipalities to participate fully in the board.
Walton and Klein introduced the county-level proposal after holding four public hearings this summer. Among the most significant challenges to arise in those discussions, Walton said, were “some of the political and personal agendas that are coming into play.”
He declined to discuss specifics, but during Tuesday’s meeting told his colleagues, “This legislation is designed not only to protect the rights of residents of Allegheny County, but it also protects the rights of law-enforcement officers across the county as well.”
Activist Khalid Raheem said that while he supports the bill, he is critical of a provision that would allow the review board to blame department policies or training for an officer’s misconduct.
“There are certain things that just go beyond being trained or not,” Raheem said.
“You know, you should not shoot somebody in the back three times when they’re running away from you,” Raheem continued, alluding to the circumstances of Rose’s death. "You don’t need to be taught that … That’s just common sense."
A “special committee,” chaired by Walton and open to all councilors, will review the bill before it can return to council for a second reading, and then possibly a vote.
Such discussion, Klein said, will give councilors the opportunity to discuss concerns like those raised by Raheem and others. Klein said the goal is to create a board “that will be responsive to the changing profile and changing needs of this region.”
The bill introduced Tuesday says the board “should reflect the diversity in the population of the county.” It would also require two of the board’s nine members to have past experience in law enforcement.
County councilors would nominate six of the members, and the county executive would nominate the remaining three. All seats would be subject to council approval.