As uncertain as the 2020 election has been, one thing appears clear: A ballot referendum to strengthen Pittsburgh’s Citizen Police Review Board is certain to pass. More than three-quarters of city voters voted in favor. If the reforms go into effect, officers could face stricter discipline, including termination, for not cooperating in investigations.
Beth Pittinger, the review board's executive director, said the support speaks volumes to what residents want.
“That is a very critical statement to be made by the people and they’ve made it,” Pittinger said. “Obviously, it’s a collective yearning for change, and that’s what I think this referendum result represents.”
However, critics, like the Fraternal Order of Police, have said the referendum would not withstand a court challenge. Robert Swartzwelder, the president of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police, has said that under the state's Act 111, the rules for police can only be changed through contract talks or arbitration. The act allows police and firefighters to appeal a disciplinary decision to an arbitrator, who may overturn the action.
At the time, Swartzwelder said depending on the referendum's effects on officers, the union might challenge it. But Pittinger said she would not be surprised if the union does challenge it.
“The referendum approval is the will of the people of this city,” she said. “I’m not going to second-guess the will of the people. And if we are called upon to defend it, we will do so.”
It would not be the first ballot initiative to face a challenge. The police union prevailed the last time voters tried to change the rules for police. In 2014, voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum that would have required officers to live in city limits. But the state Supreme Court struck it down in 2017.
The review board investigates citizen complaints against officers and recommends discipline based on its findings.