Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto talked about police reform during an online panel discussion Thursday hosted by the University of Pittsburgh. During the discussion, he explained why firing problematic police officers — who have been a target of protests this summer — can sometimes be difficult.
"Most people don't understand that the rules of discipline are created by the state and then are handed down to the city," Peduto said during a Zoom panel that lasted over an hour. "I have fired officers and they have come back... There are numerous officers within this bureau where the discipline doesn't stick because of the arbitration of the decision being handed off beyond the control of a mayor."
Peduto was referring to Act 111, a state law that governs labor relations with police and firefighters. The law allows those public-safety workers to appeal disciplinary actions like firing to outside arbitration. An arbitrator's decision can return a problematic employee to the workforce.
Peduto also answered questions about how city police handled this summer's protests. Peduto said the city did what it could to accommodate protesters, and that while the law generally prohibits blocking roads, he "shifted the rules" to allow protesters to continue their demonstrations.
"You can count on one hand the number of times where there have been situations where there has been conflict" between protesters and police, he said. But he allowed that "Incidents do occur, and whether that means you can't trust me, that's your own judgment in order to be able to make that decision."
Peduto and city police have come under fire for a number of protests that took place this summer, starting with a May 30 demonstration that ended with the use of pepper gas and non-lethal ammunition, as well as the burning of police cars. The city's response to a protest in East Liberty days later also drew condemnation — and a federal lawsuit — as did the arrest of a cyclist who was taken into custody by police in an unmarked van later.
When asked about using crowd-dispersal methods like gas and bean-bag rounds, Peduto said "the actions should fit the crime."
"If somebody is closing a street, which is a misdemeanor, does it really warrant rifles and officers in plainclothes jumping out of an unmarked vehicle? No," he said. "That's a situation that you need when you're dealing with sex trafficking."
He also acknowledged feeling that at some of the protests, like one where protesters were outside of his house, officer actions went "beyond what I believe should have been the use of deterrence and not only deterrence, but being able to bring the situation down and de-escalating." He noted that the police command staff handling such incidents had been changed since then.