A bill that would establish an independent police review board for Allegheny County is slated for a January 26 vote. On Tuesday, county council’s public safety committee made a few amendments to a recently introduced version of the legislation, and Democratic committee chair Liv Bennett said the measure would return to the full council once the county executive’s office proposes additional modifications.
Although Bennett had originally planned to send the bill back in time for a council vote next Tuesday, she said it is important to allow the executive’s office to weigh in. “Obviously, we need the administration to sign this [bill] into law,” she said.
If approved, the nine-member police review board would have the power to investigate complaints of officer misconduct. Only the Allegheny County Police Department would be required to participate, although municipal forces and the county sheriff’s office could opt in.
A similar proposal failed in a 9-6 vote in the summer of 2019, but Democrat DeWitt Walton re-submitted an identical bill in January, when a new legislative session began. Prompted by the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Antwon Rose in the borough of East Pittsburgh, Walton first started to lobby for the proposed review board in 2018.
He has said he would oppose any amendments to his legislation, so last month Democrats Liv Bennett, Bethany Hallam, and Anita Prizio introduced a separate measure, which the public safety committee discussed at its meeting Tuesday.
Walton condemned that move. “This ordinance as modified is one that I will not support. I think we need to … go back to the original legislation,” he said.
The new proposal leaves intact much of the language in Walton’s bill, but it adds a provision to establish an Office of the Allegheny County Law Enforcement Community Relations Ombudsperson. The office would review reports from community members about interactions with municipal law enforcement and gather additional facts on the reported incident. It would later post unredacted copies of the reports and any additional findings to a publicly accessible website.
Although Walton said Tuesday that he is willing to compromise on his bill, he added, “I will not support any language that creates a position of ombudsman in any shape, form, or manner.”
Neither Walton nor the committee delved into the merits of the proposed ombudsperson, but the committee did vote on several amendments to the new bill.
Republican Sam DeMarco sparked a heated discussion with his proposal to bar from serving on the board people with past felony convictions, as well as those who have been sentenced to more than a year in prison for committing a misdemeanor offense.
DeMarco predicted that such individuals could introduce anti-police bias, or at least the appearance of it, to the board and, thus, undermine community trust in the board. “We want to eliminate any potential, even perception of, bias out there because participation is incumbent for this board to work,” he said.
Hallam, who was convicted of drug-related misdemeanors in 2013 and 2015, was quick to denounce DeMarco’s idea. “I find that incredibly disrespectful for you to even put this amendment forward,” she said.
“This amendment would preclude someone like me from serving on this board,” she said. “So I can be a sitting member of the Allegheny County Council, and I can represent just as many people as you do, Councilman DeMarco, but yet because of this amendment, I, someone like me … would not be able to serve on this board.”
In response, DeMarco described Hallam’s reaction as “histrionics” that underscored his point that a past conviction could color a board member’s judgment. And he continued, “The fact that you were elected does not automatically give you entry into everything in this world.”
But several other councilors expressed their support for Hallam, with Democrats Walton, Paul Klein, and Bob Palmosina saying people should not be permanently dogged by past convictions. Bennett added that “the point of this board is to really [be] a tool for a civilians. And so, the board should represent who our civilians are in the community … and part of that community [is] returning citizens.”
The committee voted 5-2 to defeat DeMarco’s proposed measure. Democrat Bob Macey joined Bennett, Hallam, Klein, and Palmosina in opposing the measure. DeMarco and Republican Cindy Kirk supported it.
A series of other amendments all won approval. One restored a piece of Walton’s legislation by giving councilors the power to nominate six of the board’s nine members and leaving the county executive to nominate the rest, with all candidates subject to approval by a majority of council.
As originally proposed, the bill would have allowed the county executive to nominate only one member. The council president and the chair of the public safety committee would each nominate another member, with any of the councilors continuing to nominate the remaining six.
Democrats Klein and Tom Duerr introduced the amendment in part because the council president has the discretion to eliminate committees. So, Duerr said, having a committee chair tasked with nominating board members “could cause the legislation significant issues down the road.”
Klein noted also that the amendment would give the administration more of “a stake in the success of our efforts here.”
Bennett said community members had told her that they felt their councilors are more accessible than the county executive. But the committee ultimately passed Duerr and Klein's amendment 4-3, with Bennett, Hallam, and Palmosina opposed.
A third amendment, also introduced by Duerr and Klein, won unanimous approval. It proposed to raise the standard of proof required to determine that an officer had committed misconduct. Originally, the legislation would have permitted the board to sustain such a finding based on a preponderance of evidence, meaning if it were considered to be more likely than not that the allegations of misconduct are true. Duerr and Klein’s proposal would raise the standard to demand a showing that it’s “highly probable” the alleged misconduct occurred.
The committee also unanimously supported an amendment proposed by Bennett, which replaced the word “ombudsman” with “ombudsperson,” and would have the county cover any notary fees that are required to file documents with the proposed review board.