Amid mounting pressure to increase oversight of municipal police forces, the Allegheny County Council took an initial step in creating a county-wide civilian police review board. On Tuesday, it voted 8-6 to hold up to four public meetings on how to form such a board.
The vote followed the fatal shooting of black teenager Antwon Rose at the hands of a white police officer, Michael Rosfeld, last month. Rosfeld is a part-time officer for the East Pittsburgh Police Department, which is one of 106 municipal forces in Allegheny County. He was placed on administrative leave after shooting Rose.
Activist Khalid Raheem said that often in communities like East Pittsburgh, citizens can only file complaints about officers with the department that employs them. A countywide review board, he said, would facilitate independent oversight of local forces, which he said could deter police misconduct.
Council members who supported Thursday’s motion acknowledged that under state law, the county could only hold its own police department accountable to the proposed board. It couldn’t require boroughs and townships to submit to external oversight.
The board also would not have oversight of the sheriff's department, said Councilor DeWitt Walton (D-Hill District), who voted for the motion.
By establishing a police review board, Councilor Paul Klein (D-Squirrel Hill) said the county “would then, in effect, be leading by example.”
The county’s lack of authority to mandate oversight of local forces, however, led Councilor Sam DeMarco (R-North Fayette) to vote against the motion.
“To ... try to say we’ll do a civilian oversight board here, and it’s going to fix something else out there – it’s not going to happen,” DeMarco said.
Walton countered that exploring the possibility of a review board is consistent with the spirit of reform he said is needed to improve local policing.
“What we can do is work with the [state] legislators to create an environment that corrects the problem and moves us forward,” Walton said. He noted that state legislators from the Pittsburgh area have vowed to introduce legislation to reform training and hiring at local police departments.
Councilor Cindy Kirk (R-McCandless) opposed the motion, however, saying, “I don’t think it’s appropriate for the county to attempt to supercede what is currently local jurisdiction.”
She added that local police review boards already exist in her council district.
At Thursday’s meeting, council members also split on a proposed amendment, which would have suggested the public meetings could lead members to decide a review board isn’t needed.
Walton firmly opposed the amendment, which he said he debated with other council members for nearly an hour before Tuesday’s meeting.
“There’s no damn way that the need [for a civilian police review board] is not warranted,” Walton asserted.
The amendment, introduced by Councilor Patrick Catena (D-Carnegie), failed in 7-7 vote.
The version that passed authorizes Walton and Klein to lead the public meetings on the possible board. They will hold up to two meetings in August and up to two in September.
They’ll then decide whether to draft an ordinance to create the police review board. The motion says they would introduce the potential legislation to the full council by Oct. 23.
Councilors John DeFazio (D), Nicholas Futules (D), John Palmiere (D), Robert Palmosina (D), Anita Prizio (D), Denise Ranalli Russell (D) joined Klein and Walton in voting in favor of the motion. Councilors Catena, DeMarco, Kirk, Thomas Baker (R), Robert Macey (D), and Sue Means (R) were opposed.