Police oversight in Allegheny County would require police departments to opt in

Jasiri X, right, and members of 1Hood Media hold a memorial to Antwon Rose Jr. during the trial of Michael Rosfeld, the officer who shot and killed Antwon Rose. Rose’s death has rekindled the discussion for a county police review board (Current Photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)

By Annabelle Hanflig
Pittsburgh Current Intern

The law enforcement professionals of Allegheny County’s nearly 110 police departments would be subject to a new level of scrutiny if complaints against them are brought before a newly-proposed countywide review board.

If passed, Bill #10909-18 will establish a board to investigate complaints of police misconduct in the county. The board’s jurisdiction is built on an opt-in system, so it would be unable to hear complaints against departments in municipalities that have not signed themselves onto the ordinance. Co-sponsors and Allegheny County Council members DeWitt Walton and Paul Klein see the bill as a crucial first step in a much wider reckoning.

The 21-page ordinance was introduced in December 2018 to “establish a mechanism for citizen review of allegations of misconduct undertaken by police officers within Allegheny County,” according to the bill’s own language, as well as mend the severed trust between citizens and law enforcement that has publically plagued the region for over 20 years.

Klein hopes the proposed ordinance will “create a framework where there is greater interaction between communities, municipalities and the police.” He admits he has his work cut out for him in passing the bill, but ultimately wishes to forge “a greater living arrangement for police and the people that they are charged with policing.”

This proposal is not the first attempt at additional police oversight in the Pittsburgh region. Following a string of complaints against the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police for offenses including racial and gender bias, use of excessive force, and inadmissible searches and seizures, the City of Pittsburgh and the Justice Department entered into the first consent decree between a city and a government agency in 1997.

The city was able to dodge any admission of malpractice in its policing as long as it agreed to adhere to a laundry list of reforms handed down by President Bill Clinton’s Justice Department. Amendments included the implementation of an automatic early warning system to identify officers most likely to step out of line, cultural diversity training and a revamped use of force policy. The bureau soon became known as a “model for progressive policing” under federal intervention, according to a 2017 story in the New York Times.”  

That same year, an arduous yet successful citizen-initiated referendum established the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board, a collection of Pittsburgh appointees completely independent of the city and tasked with investigating citizen complaints of misconduct against any Pittsburgh Bureau of Police officer. However, all of their recommendations were non-binding on the department.

Despite this evolution, the voluntary expiration of the decree in 2002, combined with rotating administrations with disparate attitudes towards police oversight, left the PBP to fall back into some of its old ways. The ensuing instances of alleged misconduct, from the beating of Jordan Miles in 2010 to the shooting and paralyzation of Leon Ford in 2012, intensified the lack of trust in policing from citizens all over the region.

David Harris, a Pitt Law professor and a nationally recognized scholar of law enforcement practices who lent his expertise to this proposed ordinance, believes that responsible policing and community trust are contingent practices. He sees civilian oversight of police as necessary to building and maintaining a healthy community.

“If you don’t have trust, you can still have policing, but you won’t have policing that is quite as successful,” he said. “People have to believe that there’s accountability.”

Harris views the board as a timely and worthwhile endeavor but recognizes the weight of its numerous opponents and seemingly shallow capabilities.

“There’s no power to compel the various small police departments in these outlying towns and boroughs and cities to join it—that’s its biggest problem,” he said. “You might think [the structure of the board] is or is not the right format, but I think it’s still worth doing in order to have that structure… I do think the general trend over time will be for police departments to join it.”

As of now, Sharpsburg is the only municipality to commit to opting in to the proposal. Others can opt in or out at any time.

Jasiri X, Activist and founder of the Pittsburgh anti-violence coalition 1Hood Media, is another supporter of the proposed ordinance. He views its function as a lens through which citizens can gauge how committed their police truly are to bettering community relationships.

“It actually allows us to have a conversation with a starting point to say, ‘If you want better community-police relations with Swissvale or Braddock or Duquesne or Wilkinsburg, then we need you to sign up to be involved in this [ordinance],” he said. “If [departments] choose not to, you’re actually sending a signal that you don’t want better police-community relations.”

Jasiri X sees a reluctance to participate in the partnership as a sign of departments wanting to cover up their unjust methods of policing. He also points out the insincerity of departments who claim they want to foster more positive relationships with those they police but are hesitant to sign onto the proposed ordinance.

“You’re policing my community where I live and my children live, and then you’re saying I’m not qualified?” he asked. “I’m not qualified to say to you, ‘I don’t like the way you’re policing my community,’ when I’m supposed to be the one you’re serving? That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

If initiated, the independent citizen review board would assess sworn complaints of alleged misconduct submitted no more than 180 days after their initial occurrence. If the complaints make it through a hearing and subsequent investigation, the board will issue one of eight verdicts, two of which include the right for the voting members to collectively recommend non-binding action.

Visual representation of the proposed structure of the Allegheny County Police Review Board. (By Annabelle Hanflig)

The proposed ordinance’s current framework suggests an 11-person board consisting of an Executive Director, a solicitor and nine board members. The Executive Director and the solicitor will serve as non-voting members with limitless terms, while five of the nine voting members will serve no more than two consecutive four-year terms and the remaining four will serve no more than two consecutive two-year terms. Unlike the Executive Director and solicitor, voting board members will not receive any compensation for their work.

At least one board member is required to have some kind of professional legal background, and there will be a maximum of two spots open for board members with previous experience in law enforcement. No member of the board may be actively employed by Allegheny County or any other governmental body, or as a law enforcement officer during their term.

A public forum held last Wednesday at Sixth Presbyterian Church in Squirrel Hill promised attendees an explanation of the proposed ordinance from Councilman Klein and testimonies from citizens who’d been personally impacted by police use of force. The nearly 40 attendees witnessed neither, as the hearing focused mostly on the challenges facing the ordinance and those it aims to protect.

Klein spoke for a majority of the meeting and introduced the bill by weighing it against the hefty opposition it would inevitably face. He spoke of those who had already made clear their hostility towards the proposed ordinance, from Republican council members and law enforcement officers to community members from all over the county.

“There’s many people who just don’t understand why we’re doing this and what we hope to accomplish,” he said.  

One of these people is Henry Wiehagen, the North Braddock Police Chief and president of the Allegheny County chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. While Wiehagen believes that the police should be monitored, he sees the countywide board as an unnecessary and unqualified watchdog looking over the police’s shoulder.

“We’ve had a trial system that’s been in place for years and it works fine,” he said. “If an officer doesn’t do anything properly he has to justify his actions and if his actions [aren’t] appropriate, the district attorney files charges. What more do you need?”

This system tried and acquitted former East Pittsburgh Police Officer Michael Rosfeld after he shot and killed unarmed Antwon Rose II last June. A jury of seven men and five women, three of whom were black, acquitted Rosfeld less than four hours into their deliberation on the fourth day of the trial. The verdict sparked days of protests in the city and added to the list of cases in the United States in which white police officers have skirted punishment for killing black men while on the job.

A police officer in Allegheny County has never been convicted as the result of an excessive force complaint, either by a jury or bench trial. Few complaints have ever even made it to a courtroom. Wiehagen says he did not regard Rose’s killing as police misconduct or recognize race as a factor in the incident. He said that suggesting otherwise was a matter of citizens and legislators “looking for scapegoats.”

“[Rose] was an individual that conspired to commit murder. They just shot a person. Now they’re turning that out to be political. If I was the black race, I would find a better example to use than the Antwon Rose case, who committed a criminal act,” he said.

Wiehagen continuously insisted that what happened to Rose had nothing to do with race, yet chalked up the outrage over his death to be a specifically black issue. Rose’s death angered and mobilized people of all backgrounds, who believe that he did nothing to warrant his fate.  

Rose was sitting next to Zaijuan Hester in the backseat of the vehicle that Rosfeld thought to be involved in a drive-by shooting minutes prior to when he pulled it over. Hester, who pleaded guilty to charges of aggravated assault and firearms violations, confessed that he, and not Rose, was the shooter. Rose’s death at the hands of Rosfeld preempted any investigation into Rose’s alleged involvement in the shooting.

“Policemen are not going to suffer over [the proposed ordinance], the only ones who suffer over us not doing what we’re supposed to do is the citizens,” Wiehagen said. “We’re only doing what you want us to do.”

Klein recognized the hefty disparity between the topics the board is eager to tackle and its capability to do so. After mentioning issues plaguing law enforcement officers, from lack of resources to increasing numbers of disbanded departments, he admitted that the proposed review board would not be able to directly alleviate those obstacles.

“As far as the board’s role in determining ‘gee what do we do with these communities that are failing,’ the board really will not have a role in that at all,” he said.

Klein also voiced concern over the board’s inability to hear cases relating to officers in noncompliant departments. The board would have no ability to subpoena testimony or evidence from departments outside of its jurisdiction and would be unable to issue enforceable verdicts. The ordinance also cannot force any municipality in the county to adhere to its authority.

Regardless of the work to be done in order to pass the proposed ordinance, Klein trusts that it has support from the right people and would eventually leave a positive impact on the county. He mentioned support from Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, whose signature would be the final obstacle between the ordinance and the law. A statement from Allegheny County Communications Director Aime Downs says Fitzgerald is “supportive of the idea of a police citizen review board” but will review the ordinance once it “passes Council to determine whether he will sign it.”

“I think the feeling is we need to build something,” Klein said. “We will no doubt over time have to make modifications, but my hope is that in creating [the board] we can see a path forward where it can play that more positive role.”

The proposed ordinance is set to take effect on January 1, 2020 but has no solid date for when it will come before the county council. It must first be sent to a special committee for review, who will then relay it to the council with an affirmative or negative recommendation.

Klein said that he would wait until the details of the bill were more fully-formed before bringing it to the committee. He also suggested a desire to push the vote off until January if the newly-sworn county council would be progressive enough for the bill to have a fighting chance.

Marie Norman, a resident of Squirrel Hill, came to the meeting because she believed both citizens and law enforcement officers of Allegheny County would benefit from a shared governance of criminal justice. Norman proposed that police departments embrace the proposed ordinance as an avenue through which they could mend ties with the community.

“It’s in the police departments’ best interest to have citizens, taxpayers, community members on their side and [see] them as allies and not enemies,” she said.

Norman was still convinced of the proposal’s benefits after a question she posed to Klein on where the board would derive its power from went mostly unanswered.

“I guess if I have any concerns it’s that [the countywide board] might possibly give sort of a false sense of accountability,” she said. “But I still think it’s worth doing.”

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