Residents urge Allegheny County Council to create police review board |
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Theresa Clift
From left, Allegheny County Council members Pat Catena, DeWitt Walton, Paul Klein, John DeFazio and Nicholas Futules sit on a panel to listen to public comments about the idea of a countywide police review board at the Hill House Association building in Pittsburgh’s Hill District on Aug. 29, 2018.

About 40 people attended a meeting Wednesday, most of them there to urge Allegheny County Council members to create a countywide citizens’ police review board.

Carlos Torres, head of Pittsburgh’s Commission on Human Relations, told the council members if they do create the board, it should have subpoena power.

“Power of subpoena is essential,” Torres said. “We use it rarely, but I’m more than happy to use it when necessary. It brings people to the table and quickly.”

The Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board oversees the city police, but no such body exists for county police or the more than 100 police departments within the county.

Tim Stevens, head of the Black Political Empowerment Project, said his organization has been calling for such a body to be created for years.

“If the need for such a board for review of police training and police policies was ever questioned, the tragic death of unarmed 17-year-old Antwon Rose II on June 19 at the hands of East Pittsburgh police Officer Michael Rosfeld has made such an inquiry a necessity,” Stevens told the council members.

At first, the board would oversee only the county police, but the rest of the municipalities could opt in.

Pittsburgh’s board, created in its Home Rule charter in 1997, independently investigates complaints against officers, then makes recommendations to the mayor and police chief, said Elizabeth Pittinger, the board’s executive director. The Pittsburgh board is one of about 200 similar boards in the country, according to Pittinger.

The seven-member board has two “law enforcement professionals” who are retired officers or other people who used to have arresting authority but no longer do, Pittinger said.

Both bodies prefer to settle complaints before going to a public hearing, Pittinger and Torres agreed.

McKeesport Councilwoman Fawn Walker-Montgomery said she wants the board to be created to have subpoena power and not hold hearings behind closed doors. She suggested the council look to Seattle as a model.

Flo Taylor said she thinks officers should be given more vacation time to prevent burnout.

Several residents suggested officers undergo implicit bias training, more drug testing and mental health assessments.

Council divided on issue

Allegheny County Council members continue to disagree about whether to create the board.

Six County Council members Friday sent a three-page letter to each municipality in the county informing them the meetings were scheduled and listing their concerns about the idea.

Council members Sam DeMarco, R-North Fayette; Cindy Kirk, R-McCandless; Sue Means, R-Bethel Park; Tom Baker, R-Ross; Pat Catena, D-Carnegie; and Bob Macey, D-West Mifflin, signed the letter.

The same six council members voted against a measure to schedule the public meetings, the first step toward a review board, in July.

“The motion that passed was devoid of details regarding the composition of the proposed (review board), such as who would appoint the board members, accountability, qualifications, funding and what if any authority they would have over local police departments,” the letter stated.

The ordinance did not include those details because the council is simply exploring the idea right now, said DeWitt Walton, D-Hill District, who is hosting the public meetings with Paul Klein, D-Point Breeze.

“We’ve assembled a host of panelists that are going to share information so that we can find the best path to follow in the hopes of drafting some legislation that we hope to get passed by council. And so, it is informative in its nature. We’re gathering information,” Walton said during a council meeting Tuesday. “I’m really disappointed by some of my fellow colleagues. … This document was fraught with innuendo, allegations and some outright falsehoods.”

The members sent the letter mostly to inform municipalities the meetings were scheduled, not to urge them to speak against the idea, Means said.

“We weren’t necessarily recruiting people to go share their concerns,” Means told the Trib on Wednesday. “We just wanted them to know the meetings were happening.”

Council President John DeFazio, D-Shaler; Nicholas Futules, D-Oakmont; as well as Catena, Klein and Walton attended the meeting Thursday.

The Allegheny County Police Association, which has more than 200 members, opposes the idea of the review board, its president told the council last month.

The next meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Millvale Community Center, 416 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. Meetings also are planned for Sept. 20 in Duquesne and Sept. 26 in McKees Rocks, but the locations have not yet been finalized, said Ken Varhola, County Council’s chief of staff.

All meetings will run from 5:30 to 7 p.m. and are open to all residents, Walton said.

Theresa Clift is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Theresa at 412-380-5669, [email protected] or via Twitter @tclift.

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