An Allegheny County Council committee held a hearing Wednesday on a proposed civilian police review board. Councilors will vote on whether to create the board at their meeting next Tuesday.
The board would lead independent investigations into allegations of police misconduct, though municipalities would not be required to participate.
The idea for a review board gained traction following the police shooting of Antwon Rose in East Pittsburgh last year.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Rose’s mother, Michelle Kenney, said independent oversight of police is essential.
“There is no way that you can expect the police to police the police,” she told the 11 councilors at the special committee hearing.
Under legislation introduced in December, the review board would consist of nine members who “reflect the diversity in the population of the county.” Two of the members would be required to have past experience in law enforcement.
Some at Wednesday’s meeting questioned the need for an oversight body outside existing structures.
County councilor Sam DeMarco (R-North Fayette), for example, listed the numerous agencies and officials with which people may file complaints of police misconduct, including the county district attorney’s office, the state attorney general’s office, the state’s human relations commission, and federal agencies. Citizens also may appeal to municipal police chiefs and elected officeholders, DeMarco noted.
Kenney dismissed those options, saying they would not ensure independent oversight.
“At the end of the day, the DA’s office and the county are the police. They’re friends," she said. "Someone has to give the residents of Allegheny County a voice.”
Opponents of the proposed board, however, argued that civilians are not qualified to assess the actions of police. Val Finnell, of Kennedy Township, worried that the board would be biased against police and be expensive.
“What would something like this cost in a county with over 130-plus municipalities?” he asked. “Given the superfluous nature of such a board, this is a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
The county could only mandate its own police department to participate in the board. Municipalities could choose to opt in. (Pittsburgh would not be included, as the city already has its own citizen police review board.)
Supporters of the board, however, contended that its services could become more widely used as municipalities struggle to fund their own police forces. If a municipality were to have the county police take over patrol duty, as the borough of Wilmerding has done, it would be subject to the board’s jurisdiction.
“In creating this board, we are looking to a future that may be very different from what we have come to know,” county councilor Paul Klein (D-Squirrel Hill) said. Klein co-sponsored the bill that would create the review board, along with councilor DeWitt Walton (D-Hill District).
University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris was invited to testify as an expert before the council committee. (Harris also serves as WESA's legal analyst.) Harris agreed with Klein that local forces are strapped for resources, due in part Harris said, to the mounting costs to law enforcement of drug trafficking, gang violence, and opioid addiction.
“Because of that,” Harris said, “they need more oversight. They need a body that can supply them with important expertise.”
Under the bill, municipalities would be allowed to limit their participation so that the board would only review their law-enforcement policies and practices and not investigate allegations against individual officers.
Harris said that provision could make the board a valuable resource to local governments. The now-defunct police department in East Pittsburgh, where Antwon Rose was killed, was found to have no hiring or training policies.
“One of the great virtues of a body like [the proposed review board] is that it can get on top of these kinds of problems before a catastrophe happens,” Harris said.