Complaints against Pittsburgh police dropped last year to their second-lowest level in a decade.
Total allegations made in 2022 against police to the city’s Office of Municipal Investigations [OMI], which is charged with probing complaints against city employees, ran 22% lower than the average of the prior nine years. Last year, OMI received two-thirds as many allegations against police as it did in the high-water year of 2020.
That’s one of several metrics suggesting that police interactions with residents were less conflictual than usual during the first year of Mayor Ed Gainey’s tenure. In the wake of protests stemming from the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Gainey ran and won in 2021 on a platform of speeding up reform of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police.
There is no unanimity, though, about what’s driving the statistical trend.
“Better training for officers, the body-worn cameras [now used by all officers] and less officers,” summarized Lee Schmidt, director of Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Safety, when asked what he thought was behind the drop in complaints.
Brandi Fisher, president and CEO of the Alliance for Police Accountability [APA], said lack of faith in OMI and other official police accountability mechanisms, and a natural ebb as Floyd’s death and related protest recedes, may have contributed to the lower complaint numbers.
The city’s data “is not reflective of what’s actually happening in our communities,” Fisher said. Few of the people who report police complaints to her umbrella group also bring them to OMI, she added.
PublicSource’s third analysis, since 2020, of police accountability data is built on data the city provided in response to a Right-to-Know Law request. (Recognizing that the city may face legal bars from revealing the names of accused officers, the request asked that officers instead be assigned numbers.)
The data comes at a pivotal moment for Pittsburgh’s bureau.
In March, the city and the Fraternal Order of Police [FOP] Fort Pitt Lodge #1 approved a new contract that imposes a disciplinary matrix on officers.
The city also appears to be completing its search for a new police chief, through a process that has included input from members of organizations that have historically been critical of the city’s handling of officer malfeasance.
“Accountability is very important” in the search for a new chief, said Schmidt. He said a chief should “hold themselves accountable, provide good leadership and good example in holding the entire chain of command accountable as well as the officers.”
Some officers who have long been subjects of many complaints are no longer showing up in the data, suggesting that they have either changed their behaviors or are no longer with the bureau.
Nonetheless, the city continued, in 2022, to see complaints against some repeat offenders. Last year’s most-complained-against officer was the subject of 15 allegations over four different incidents, bringing the total accusations against that officer over a decade to 72.
“It suggests that at least with those outlier cases, the department is not paying enough attention to those particular officers,” said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and author of the book “A City Divided: Race, Fear and the Law in Police Confrontations.”
“That shouldn’t be something that we see,” Harris continued, “and it should attract the attention of every person in the city who pays attention to these matters.”
What’s behind the decline in complaints?
All officers now wear cameras, which officers are required to turn on when exiting vehicles on calls, encountering citizens, responding to emergencies, serving warrants and assisting task forces. Both officers and citizens tend to deescalate when they know they’re being recorded, said Schmidt.
He added that the bureau has become more sophisticated in its ability to enforce the requirement that cameras be turned on. The city has software that compares dispatch information to camera footage, flagging situations in which cameras should have been turned on, but were not. The bureau pursued discipline against officers for failing to use body-worn cameras 11 times in each of the past two years, a higher number than in previous years.
Schmidt added that the complaint drop may be in part due to fewer officers.
“From the beginning of 2020 when we had 1,013 or so officers, we’re now down 200-plus officers” to around 800, he said. In 2020, OMI received 497 complaints against police versus 325 last year.
Schmidt said fewer officers may allow for better supervision, and added that the smaller roster doesn’t necessarily mean “less policing.”
Officers are responding to the 911 calls dispatched to them, said Robert Swartzwelder, the FOP president. He added that he suspects that “there’s a significant reduction in self-initiated activity,” like stopping people or cars based on reasonable suspicion of a crime.
He added that officers are “professionals at heart. So I’m not surprised that complaints have dropped with improved professionalism and I think support from the public has improved somewhat.”
Schmidt agreed that the public may be recognizing that “officers are doing a better job.”
OMI can either sustain a complaint, meaning it found the officer violated a policy; exonerate the officer; find that a complaint was unfounded; or leave it unresolved. Over the past decade, OMI sustained around 11% of the allegations it received, and last year that inched to 12%.
Allegations received by OMI related to use of force plunged last year to less than half of the average of the prior nine years.
Attorney Timothy O’Brien, who has been pursuing lawsuits against the Pittsburgh police for decades, said he’s seen ebbs in complaints before.
“It’s always good news that fewer citizens are complaining about the inappropriate use of force,” O’Brien said. It’s not, however, the end of the discussion. “You can’t pick out a single year and say that a single year is determinative of whether there is a problem with the use of force.”
Schmidt said the city has gradually updated its use-of-force rules and the annual instruction provided to all officers.
Swartzwelder credited the decline in use-of-force complaints less to training than to “a supportive public that realizes that police have a difficult job.” He added that OMI may be increasingly diligent about its classification of complaints, resulting in fewer allegations being mischaracterized as use of force.
Fisher suggested that the bureau continues to use force at rates higher than OMI’s numbers might suggest. Whereas 8% of allegations received by OMI last year were related to use of force, more than one-third of the 63 complaints against Pittsburgh police received by the APA fit that description.
City police and public safety leadership can pursue disciplinary action in relation to sustained complaints, and can also file Disciplinary Action Reports [DAR] when they see policy violations that haven’t reached OMI.
The 138 allegations made in DARs against bureau employees last year were the smallest number since 2017.
How did that translate into discipline against officers? That’s as-yet unclear. Some DARs do not result in punishments.
In 2021, for instance, 216 allegations appeared in DARs. (Like OMI complaints, a DAR can include more than one alleged policy violation.) That’s the first year for which the bureau disclosed, in its annual report, a breakdown on discipline. The bureau reported that it issued:
- 37 oral reprimands
- 24 written reprimands
- 23 counseling orders
- 17 suspensions
- 1 termination.
The bureau hasn’t yet issued an annual report for 2022.
Swartzwelder said he’s seen bureau brass recommending more suspensions and terminations lately than previously, but added that some of those are reduced when they are reviewed by higher-level officials, including Schmidt. He added, however, that Schmidt has also increased some recommended penalties.
This year will likely mark a major change in how the city disciplines officers.
The city and the Fraternal Order of Police have agreed to a new disciplinary matrix.
Starting last month, discipline is based on the severity of an officer's infraction and their history of policy violations.
The agreement outlines “terminable offenses,” including:
- Committing a felony or certain misdemeanors
- Engaging in domestic violence or being the subject of a permanent or final Protection from Abuse Order
- Using a firearm to threaten another, except in the course of duty or self-defense
- Sexual misconduct or sexual harassment “of a serious nature”
- Lying, fabricating, misleading, committing fraud or committing perjury in an official proceeding or obligation
- Using drugs illegally
- Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, if it’s a second or subsequent offense, involves a hit-and-run or happens in a city-owned vehicle
- Losing driving privileges, firearm privileges or access to the Commonwealth Law Enforcement Assistance Network
- Physical violence on the job, other than as necessary to perform law enforcement duties
- Providing internal documents or another bureau member’s personal data to unauthorized persons
- Jeopardizing an undercover investigation
- Joining or participating in an organization that advocates criminal acts or conspiracies, or transmitting content that advocates harassment and violence
- Misusing the bureau computer system or intentionally damaging or destroying city electronic media.
Schmidt said the matrix allows wiggle room for mitigating circumstances, but has enough structure that it should address perceptions in the bureau "that this group … got the hammer put down on them, and this one didn’t" for similar conduct.
The matrix should also help the city when the FOP files grievances challenging disciplinary actions and they go before arbitrators, he said. In the past, he said, the union would seek to undermine city disciplinary actions by pointing out similar, past cases that resulted in lesser punishments. The matrix "helps us move forward from this."
While the FOP “rewrote” the administration’s original proposal for a matrix, said Swartzwelder, it does not oppose the measure. “I think it’s a neutral concept whereby, if applied correctly, everybody would be on the same page, to include the officers, the administration and the FOP.”
Fisher called the matrix “a great and necessary first step. … I was ecstatic to find out that one actually made it in there, and that our administration decided to fight for that.”
Citizens can complain about police to OMI or to the independent Citizens Police Review Board. In nearly 25 years receiving complaints, CPRB has rarely logged fewer cases than it did last year.
“The use-of-force stuff has declined tremendously, and I can’t explain it, but it’s true,” said CPRB Executive Director Elizabeth Pittinger. “We’re back to most everything being demeanor-related, that [officers are] acting like a fool as opposed to being aggressive and violent. They’re just not being very polite.”
CPRB has, however, discerned potential problems in supervision of officers, stemming from incidents like the multiple-injury shooting at an Oct. 28 funeral in Brighton Heights. There were no officers at the funeral for a shooting victim, despite a request for police coverage.
Two members of the bureau were the subjects of internal discipline stemming from the date of the funeral. The bureau accused those members of conduct unbecoming, insubordination, neglect of duty, leaving the city while on duty and violating policies regarding truthfulness and notifications to dispatch. The data provided by the city to PublicSource does not indicate with certainty that the discipline was related to the funeral, nor whether either member was punished.
Pittinger said no one filed a complaint with CPRB in relation to the funeral, but the board is asking, “Where is the supervision here?” The board has begun to review the bureau’s supervisory training.
The bureau has been led by acting Chief Thomas Stangrecki since Scott Schubert announced his retirement in May.
Fisher said one of APA’s board members is on the police chief selection committee. Miracle Jones, director of advocacy and policy for 1Hood Media, wrote in response to questions that she could not discuss the police chief search because she is bound by a confidentiality agreement as a condition of inclusion on the selection committee.
The selection committee, said Schmidt, features “a very diverse mindset, both mindset and demographics .... So we’re kind of listening to all opinions as much as we can.”
Last year’s review of police accountability data, conducted with City Cast Pittsburgh, included a first-in-Pittsburgh release of data on every allegation and disciplinary action against officers over a decade.
In 2020, PublicSource’s initial review of complaints against Pittsburgh police revealed that a single officer was the subject of 119 allegations over a decade.
That officer — whose identity has not been definitively confirmed — did not generate any complaints over the past two years.
Last year, though, a different officer was the subject of four complaints filed with OMI, including 15 separate allegations related to alleged violations of policies on searches, truthfulness, reporting, investigatory and motor vehicle stops, towing and conduct toward the public. At least five of the allegations were sustained.
That same officer was the subject of 10 allegations in 2021 and 32 in 2020.
The bureau pursued three separate DARs against a single officer last year, including alleged violations of policies on pursuits, towing, searches and truthfulness.
That officer faced 12 disciplinary allegations in 2021 and seven in 2019.
Because the data does not include officer names, and the dates of the incidents do not match up precisely, it’s not clear whether the OMI complaints and the disciplinary actions relate to the same officer.
“That goes to an inherent problem in policing,” said attorney O’Brien, ”which is the failure to immediately remove, or as soon as practical, remove from law enforcement duties someone who fails by intent or inability to perform his or her duties up to the standards.”
Schmidt pointed to state Act 111, the 55-year-old law that governs collective bargaining and arbitration involving municipalities and their police and fire unions. “There are times that the arbitrator would lessen the discipline or require us to bring someone back that was terminated,” he said.
The FOP can and does file grievances when the city terminates officers. In the case of former officer Paul Abel, the focus of several high-profile use-of-force incidents, the FOP has appealed the city’s 2020 termination to Commonwealth Court.
Swartzwelder said the union has appealed Abel’s termination based on a “significant procedural defect” in the disciplinary process, adding that the union is obligated to hold the city to the procedures negotiated in collective bargaining.
Schmidt said he hoped the new disciplinary matrix would not result in more terminations.
“I hope the matrix makes it clear to everyone what their discipline would be if they do something, so they feel like they have a better understanding of the process and more awareness of what is going to happen if they do something wrong.”
About the data
PublicSource in January asked the City of Pittsburgh, under the state Right-to-Know Law, for data involving a decade of complaints about city police received by the Office of Municipal Investigations [OMI], and Disciplinary Action Reports [DARs] handled within the Bureau of Police and Department of Public Safety. Because state law could make the city liable if it released records naming the officers, PublicSource asked the city to substitute a unique number for each name.
The city provided the requested data, which:
1) Uses one set of numbers in place of officer names in the OMI data, and different numbers in the DAR data
2) Excludes officer identifiers if the officer who was the subject of an allegation was unknown
3) Does not disclose the nature of allegations in open cases
4) Does not include the discipline handed out as a result of DARs, which the city maintains is exempt from the Right-to-Know Law.
The data provided here is unchanged from that provided by the city, except that blanks in the data have been marked "Not provided," and points that were obviously erroneous or outside of the time frame were removed.
Both sets of data cite bureau directives or orders. The directives and orders are detailed on the city website, here.
Rich Lord is the managing editor of PublicSource and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Dakota Castro-Jarrett.
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