The Allegheny County Police Department will have a new superintendent next month, but the change comes too soon for critics who say the public should have had a say in choosing the department’s next leader.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced last week that Coleman McDonough will retire from the post at the end of March, after nearly five years with the force. He will be replaced by assistant superintendent Christopher Kearns, who joined the department as a patrolman in 1987 and has since “served in every position and in all [Allegheny County police] divisions,” according to a statement from the county executive’s office.
But news of Kearns' appointment caught some county officials by surprise, especially at a time when the nation continues to grapple with strained relations between marginalized communities and the police.
County Councilor Liv Bennett, a Democrat who chairs county council’s public safety committee, said she didn't know a leadership change was underway until Kearns had been chosen. She faulted the administration for not consulting with constituents before naming him as McDonough's successor.
“This should be a very public process. We spent the whole summer out in the streets really talking about the need for better relations between the police and the community,” said Bennett, a long-time supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, which inspired weeks of protests across the country last summer.
Bennett said that while she has no complaints about Kearns specifically, “transparency and community input” are key to building trust between civilians and the police. “So when that doesn't happen … it's just very disingenuous. … I think it is tone deaf, and it just doesn't kind of jive with the time."
Asked about such criticism, a statement from a county spokesperson said Kearns’ promotion to superintendent “was part of a succession plan to provide stability and continuity in the department.”
“He is an integral part of the department’s command staff and frequently stands in as the officer in charge when the superintendent is away from the office,” the statement continued. “He has an outstanding record and is eminently qualified to lead the department.”
The county police department primarily plays a supportive role for other law enforcement agencies at all levels of government. For example, the county department leads independent investigations into the use of deadly force by Pittsburgh police officers. It also offers use-of-force, implicit bias, and de-escalation training to officers from other municipal forces in the county, and it coordinates narcotics and firearms enforcement with federal and other agencies.
“The county police [are] often not the most prominent in the complex patchwork of agencies that is law enforcement in our region,” Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner noted in a statement shortly after the administration announced McDonough’s retirement. But the Democrat added, the department “does not have to be a bystander in efforts to improve faith and trust in law enforcement among our residents.”
Wagner agreed with Bennett that members of the public should have been involved in choosing the next superintendent for the county police department. “Its budget, supported by every taxpaying resident of the County, surpasses that of nearly any other local police agency,” said Wagner, a candidate in this spring’s crowded race to fill nine seats on the county’s Common Pleas Court.
Democratic County Councilor Paul Klein noted, however, “The administration doesn't typically consult with [outsiders] when they make … decisions to appoint department or agency heads or directors. They have the right, the discretion to do that, and that is typically how it plays out.”
Klein acknowledged that the appointment of a new police superintendent “certainly could have been an opportunity” for community input. But he added that there are other means of achieving that goal: Klein said county council itself can promote police accountability by establishing an independent civilian police review board with the power to investigate allegations of police misconduct.
Since 2018, council has debated legislation that would create such a board.
“If as a council we decide that we enact this legislation and create a civilian police review board, it's something that the superintendent, whoever that might be … they would be working with us in line with the constraints that might be imposed by the civilian police review board in terms of accountability,” Klein said.
He said that while he continues to discuss the details of the proposed board with other councilors and the county executive’s office, he is “hopeful” that it will become reality.
“Over the past two-and-a-half years, I think that a lot of eyes have been opened to the need for this kind of accountability,” Klein said. “And, the administration is certainly very tuned in to this as well.”