Referendum On Ballot Could Give Police Review Board More Power, But Police Could Challenge

Oct 19, 2020

Voters in the city of Pittsburgh have a referendum on the ballot this fall. It’s an effort to strengthen the city’s police review board. But there is a chance that even if it passes, the issue may not be settled on Election Night.

The independent Citizen Police Review Board is a seven-member body created to investigate claims of misconduct by officers. Currently, if an officer does not cooperate in an inquiry, punishment may only go as far as verbal reprimand. But the referendum would raise the stakes for defiance, making it possible for officers to be fired if they don’t participate. Review board Executive Director Beth Pittinger says that’s a game-changer.

“It’s putting it square out there if people adopt this referendum that they expect the Bureau of Police to be accountable to the review board, which in turn makes them accountable to the public,” Pittinger said.  

City Councilor Ricky Burgess, who introduced the referendum, said the measure would also require city officials to wait for the board’s review before deciding whether to discipline an officer. The city currently bases its decisions on a separate internal review process with the Office of Municipal Investigations. And sometimes OMI’s findings are different than the CPRB’s.    

“It’s when they justify or clear the officer,” Burgess said. “I don’t think they should do that without the review board’s participation if some charges have been filed.”

Burgess said the referendum also requires that the city's Commission on Human Relations be notified when a complaint involves alleged discrimination. The Commission could then proceed with its own investigation.

“The Commission on Human Relations is recognized under state law as the investigative body for the violations of civil rights of people,” he said. “And it’s important that they do these things together.”

But Robert Swartzwelder, the president of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police, said the entire referendum is “a waste of taxpayer money and time.” He 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.

“They could put that on the referendum, the citizens could vote for it, but if challenged by the Fraternal Order of Police, that referendum would become null and void,” Swartzwelder said.

Asked if the FOP would challenge the new review board rules if approved by voters, Swartzwelder said, “We’d have to see what the effects are.”

“Very often we cooperate with the CPRB through our attorney and sometimes we interview, sometimes we respond in writing,” he said. “But it would depend on how the process with the CPRB would work.”

Pittinger says the will of voters would trump state rules. The referendum is an amendment to the home rule charter, which she said “substitutes for state law” when it comes to rules for personnel management and administration. 

“[The home rule charter is] where we as people of Pittsburgh say ‘these are our values, this how we embody them.”

Professor Jalila Jefferson Bullock is a law professor at Duquesne University. She said the police union could respond to the referendum by trying to reach out to the community.

“To me it seems like instead of fighting a system that is clearly not working as well as it should, what ought to happen is that the FOP ought to come together and say, ‘How can we make this palatable to us, so that the community feels safer?'" Jefferson-Bullock said.

But she acknowledged that police could go to the courts instead.

“Anything is challengeable in court,” she said. “And I think that the FOP has historically challenged these types of boards, increasing their powers. And they’ve done so, and they’ve done so successfully.”

The police union prevailed the last time voters tried to change the rules for police. A 2014 referendum would have required officers to live in city limits. Voters approved it overwhelmingly, but the state Supreme Court struck it down in 2017.