Allegheny County’s new Independent Police Review Board could be a “real force for good” in the county, said freshly appointed board member Justin Leavitt Pearl, but any action must wait until all of its seats are filled.

“This board exists so that people can have their voices heard,” said Pearl, one of the four initial appointees. “If that’s happening, I think this board is a success.”

But the nine-member panel, which was created by council’s vote more than 16 months ago, cannot officially begin oversight until County Executive Rich Fitzgerald makes his own four appointments, and it’s unclear when he will do that. (Council and the executive must agree on a ninth member.) 

The board’s effectiveness will also depend on whether or not individual municipalities agree to submit to its oversight.

County Council on Aug. 30 formally appointed four people to the panel, which will be empowered to investigate complaints about police officers under its jurisdiction and make disciplinary recommendations. They are: 

  • Pearl, a 35-year-old Pittsburgh resident who directs Carlow University’s Atkins Center for Ethics
  • Keith Murphy, 60, of McKeesport and founder of the Healthy Village Learning Institute
  • Lynn Banaszak, a 55-year-old Pittsburgher and a diversity, equity and inclusion executive at Amazon
  • Richard Garland, 69, of South Park, who was formerly incarcerated and now heads the Violence Prevention Project at the University of Pittsburgh.

These appointees are the product of a monthslong selection process that council initiated in March. In addition to the four, council recommended another candidate, David Mayernick, for Fitzgerald to consider for the joint appointee. 

Fitzgerald’s spokesperson, Amie Downs, said the executive expects to announce his picks for the board “in the coming weeks.” She said in June he was waiting until after council made its appointments.

Two council picks said they hoped the panel could, at the very least, send a positive message.

“Me being a former gang member, me being from Philadelphia, me being incarcerated, for them to pick me for this board says a whole lot to the community and to other formerly incarcerated folks who didn’t think that they could be part of society and have something to do with making change,” Garland said in an interview.

Garland was the top choice of the council’s special committee that finalized the selections.

Pearl said he learned about the board through the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter, which he helps to organize.

“What I would like is a situation in which the members of the community of this county are able to have a voice when they feel like they have been mistreated,” Pearl said. He said the board likely does not have the power to “radically reform policing” in the county.

Council’s vote to create the board in April 2021 concluded a legislative process that lasted three years, but signified only the start of the work. It took 14 months for council to narrow its list of candidates, and two more months to appoint the initial four.

That process will continue long after the full board is seated: It presently only has jurisdiction over the county police, and municipalities must formally opt in for their police to be subject to board reviews. Allegheny County has more than 100 police departments.

Council President Patrick Catena said in June that it will be an “all hands” effort on council to lobby municipalities to participate. Council member Bethany Hallam, though, said in a recent interview it will be incumbent on residents to urge their municipal officials to submit to the board’s oversight.

“I sure hope I’m not having to rely on the 15 members of council to do outreach,” she said.

Councilman Tom Duerr, who cosponsored the bill that created the board, said in a recent interview that a successful first year for the board would include hiring a quality executive director and getting between five and 10 municipalities signed on.

“If we could get one of the larger ones to opt in, I think that would be a real strong show of confidence in the board and there could be a cascading effect where we got a lot more municipalities to opt in,” Duerr said. 

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Pearl said he suspects there will be initial hesitancy among municipalities, but he hopes that as the board begins its work it will build a positive reputation and gain momentum. Both Pearl and Garland said credibility will come through the board’s work hearing cases.

“I’m gonna call a spade a spade,” Garland said of how he will assess cases that come before the board. “I don’t care which side it’s on.”

Three of the four appointees received unanimous support on council’s final vote, but Pearl received ‘no’ votes from Hallam, Duerr and DeWitt Walton. 

Hallam and Duerr said they opposed his nomination because he was the second appointee who lives in Pittsburgh, and they wanted to see more geographic diversity on the board. Pittsburgh, they each pointed out, already has its own Citizen Police Review Board

“There are so many police departments to oversee in this county, and I do think [geographic diversity] can increase the chance of getting municipalities to participate,” Hallam said. “I do think if there’s a board member from Monroeville, the Monroeville police department may be more likely to opt in.”

Duerr said he thought the seat would have been “better served by someone outside city limits with more knowledge of other areas.”

Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at charlie@publicsource.org or on Twitter @chwolfson.

Ladimir Garcia is a PublicSource editorial intern. He can be reached at ladimir@publicsource.org.

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Charlie Wolfson is an enterprise reporter for PublicSource, focusing on local government accountability in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. He is also a Report for America corps member. Charlie aims to...

Ladimir is a fall intern at PublicSource. He is a native of Beckley, West Virginia, and a senior at West Virginia University, studying toward a bachelor's degree in journalism with minors in political...