Pittsburgh police reform: where do city council members stand, and what’s in their power?

We spoke to six city council members about changes they hope to implement and whether Mayor Peduto has done enough.

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Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess during a February meeting of Pittsburgh City Council. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess during a February meeting of Pittsburgh City Council. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

Banning chokeholds, prohibiting the acquisition of military equipment and implementing a hiring freeze are some of the recent steps Pittsburgh city council has taken to reform the city’s police. But do council members think they’re enough? And what more can they do?

Police reform has been a focus for Pittsburgh city council for the past few months, following the death of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests. The “snatch and grab” arrest of a protester by plainclothes police in an unmarked white van earlier this month, which outraged residents and made national headlines, intensified local calls for police reform and brought protesters to mayor’s doorstep. 

Last week, PublicSource took a look at how much power Mayor Peduto has to implement police reforms. But Peduto isn’t the only local official with the power to make changes to Pittsburgh’s police. As city council prepares for a closed briefing with Public Safety officials on Thursday, PublicSource spoke to six council members and two experts on the extent of city council’s power. What changes may council members try to implement and what do they think about Peduto’s response so far?

Police reform: where do city council members stand?

While their specific policy ideas differed, the six city council members that PublicSource spoke to agreed: further changes to Pittsburgh’s police force are needed.

“The problem is not police officers, and not really even training. The problem is the nature of policing in our country,” said Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess, who represents East End neighborhoods including East Liberty, Homewood and Garfield. He said police are too often called for situations that don’t require law enforcement techniques, such as mental health crises, substance use issues and other nonviolent situations. Echoing the calls of “defund the police” advocates nationwide, he said professionals trained in mediation and conflict resolution should handle such cases, rather than police officers. The Stop The Violence Fund created in July allocates money for programs that provide “intervention, mediation, violence prevention or necessary supportive services” which reduce crime, according to the bill. 

In July, council passed five police reform bills that banned chokeholds, prohibited the acquisition of military equipment, enacted a hiring freeze, began a fund for anti-violence programs and established a “duty to intervene” for police officers who witness another officer using unreasonable force. 

Council needs to look closely at the police bureau’s policies and tactics, Councilman Anthony Coghill, representing South Pittsburgh, said. He’s open to diverting funds to social services for certain types of situations, he said, but not to taking money from the police department “simply because I know firsthand, our police department is underpaid. Our best police officers are being recruited by the suburbs.” 

Councilperson Erika Strassburger, whose district covers Oakland, Point Breeze, Shadyside and Squirrel Hill, said she has been researching numerous potential policy changes, including directing nonviolent 911 calls to trained civilian staff members, using red light cameras and other technologies instead of having police involved in traffic stops, implementing policy changes regarding police protocols at protests and even considering traffic fines and fees to make sure they’re not overly burdensome.

Strassburger said she wants to hear law enforcement’s justification of using less-lethal weapons at protests, but if she still doesn’t agree with the practice after hearing the justification, she would be open to banning them. “Currently, I personally don’t understand why tear gas or bean bags are ever used in protests, and that needs to be a conversation that I have so that I understand that,” she said.

On Tuesday, Councilman Corey O’Connor introduced a bill that, if passed, would require facial recognition and predictive policing technologies to be approved by city council before being acquired by city police. The bill follows a PublicSource investigation detailing Pittsburgh police’s use of facial recognition through the statewide law enforcement database JNET to charge a suspect with crimes related to a recent protest. “Our thoughts behind the bill were, these are tools that are out there. If we’re going to approve them with the city, let’s be transparent and open,” said O’Connor, whose district covers Greenfield, Hazelwood and Squirrel Hill South. It’s unclear whether the bill could apply to JNET as it’s a multi-jurisdictional system, O’Connor said, but his staff is looking into it. 

Peduto on Wednesday told PublicSource that he would support restricting city police's use of JNET's facial recognition technology to felony cases only.

"[O]nce you have become a suspect in a felony, then... the police should be able to use facial recognition through the state system the same way that we use fingerprints," he said. "Should a misdemeanor fall under that category, or a summary offense? I don't think so. Has it been? Yes. And I think that's something that we have to look at as we look at police reform."

Councilwoman Deborah Gross, whose district includes Bloomfield, Lawrenceville and the Strip District, said there are two main reform areas she’s working on: Act 111 and how much money the city actually spends on policing. 

Act 111 is a state law that requires binding arbitration for police officers and firefighters. In 2014, the law was used as legal justification to overturn a referendum that would have required Pittsburgh police officers to live within city limits. (The decision was reversed in 2016, then re-instated in 2017, allowing officers to live within 25 miles of the City-County Building in Downtown.) “That’s a really broad power,” Gross said. She said she and several other council members are working with a group of city officials from Philadelphia, Erie, Scranton and other cities to explore possible changes to Act 111. The group has a meeting this Friday “so that we can explore how we might give our citizens more control over what they want to see from their police force,” Gross said. 

While the city’s 2020 police budget is almost $115 million, Gross said that doesn’t include vehicles like the unmarked white van, which are purchased through the city’s Equipment Leasing Authority. “How much did we pay for that van? And how many of those vans do we have?” Gross said. Unlike the city’s budget, the authority’s budget is not posted on its website.

Gross said it’s important for everyone “to have the same numbers in front of us… so we can have a discussion about what we want those numbers to be for 2021.”

Councilmembers Anthony Coghill and Deb Gross during a February 2020 council meeting. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

Council President Theresa Kail-Smith, whose district includes neighborhoods such as Beechview, Crafton Heights, Sheraden and Mount Washington, said she wants to focus on creating policies that are comprehensive, rather than reactionary. “I really don’t want this issue, this protest, to be a concern now, and then two years from now there to be a different protest with different issues,” she said. She said she wants council to consider whether it’s possible to have crossing guards directing traffic at protests rather than police officers, and how to make the police force more diverse, a problem that the bureau has been struggling with for decades.   

Council is scheduled to have a closed briefing with Public Safety on Thursday, after which a task force will likely be formed and begin drafting legislation, Kail-Smith said. “We really would like for the activists and the police to come to the table so that we can work together on this...” she said. “That’s the only way that we are going to get the best result, to make sure the voices from all sides are heard.”

It’s yet to be determined when legislation will be introduced and whether the task force will be comprised solely of council members or will include other individuals. Kail-Smith said the task force will differ from the mayor’s Community Task Force on Police Reform, which was created in June, because city council’s functions are different, though the two groups may work together. 

Public Safety officials “have met with Council on numerous occasions and respect their recommendations, just as we hope they respect Public Safety officials’ experience and expertise,” department spokesman Chris Togneri wrote in an email to PublicSource. 

“Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich and Police Chief Scott Schubert have also stated publicly numerous times that they support the reform changes already implemented, including the 8 Can’t Wait reforms. They have also stated that a reduction in funds for police recruits will greatly impact our ability to have a diverse police department,” Togneri wrote. “Public Safety will work with City officials and Council to ensure funding is available in the future to recruit new officers who represent the community they will serve and who are willing to make a difference.”

Togneri added that the bureau “is not afraid of change and will continue to evolve in order to best serve our communities.”

Councilmembers Bobby Wilson, Bruce Kraus and R. Daniel Lavelle did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

How much power does city council have to implement reforms?

Council members and experts also agreed: city council’s strongest reform tool is the power of the purse.

Across the United States, city councils approve public safety budgets. The fiscal crisis caused by the pandemic, combined with the mounting social pressure to disinvest in police, is going to result in police budget cuts that will be “extraordinary,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of The City University of New York Institute for State and Local Governance. “This is a sort of opportunity now to really rethink how police departments operate,” he said.

Strassburger agreed that budget cuts are likely on the way. “This council budget season, I think, will be more highly scrutinized by the public,” she said. She gave several reasons: the magnifying glass that policing is under, the budget strain brought about by COVID-19 and the fact that residents can watch council meetings remotely from their homes. “People are really engaging in public hearings… in ways that I’ve never seen before,” she said.

Given the predicted budget cuts, Jacobson said police unions are going to have to “come to the table” and negotiate with city councils. “They can’t just take a ‘We’re not giving up anything’ posture. Because if they do, then the mayor and council… are just going to decide what cuts they take. And those cuts may be far less preferable” to the union, he said.

While mayors have more direct power over policing than city councils, George Dougherty, assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said councils are “not helpless.” They can pass ordinances and resolutions that the mayor is required to implement, he said. “In general, they do that in such a way that gives the administration… the ability to adjust and fine-tune it based on the needs of the city. But they certainly can pass legislation to bring these things about.”

There are some things council has no control over, such as officer compensation and benefits, which are determined by collective bargaining due to Act 111 and make up 93% of the 2020 police budget. “[A] lot of people see the public safety budget being so high, but I think those are things we can’t control,” O’Connor said.

Yet there are other things that council “can be creative” about, Coghill said, citing as an example one of council’s July measures that reallocated $250,000 from the police recruiting budget to the Stop the Violence fund, though he voted against the bill. He said council needs to consult the law department to determine “where those lines are.”

Burgess said because the city can only permanently fire officers in rare cases, there’s only one way to shrink the police force: stop hiring new officers. He was the prime sponsor of the hiring freeze legislation that passed in July. “Within a few years, you can significantly decrease the number of officers, which can significantly decrease the police budget... it is the only practical way to do it,” he said.

He also said lawmakers need to invest in Black communities. “If we stay on police reform, we miss the big picture...” he said. “The way to impact Black people directly is to rebuild the communities they live in, and rebuild jobs, and give them access to entrepreneurship in their own communities.”

Has Mayor Peduto’s response been adequate?

On Friday, Peduto announced several police personnel changes, including assigning a new incident commander to oversee protests; assigning a new oversight and command structure for the Police Special Response Teams, which are trained in crowd-control methods; expanding the role of the Pittsburgh Police Community Engagement Office; and formally banning jump-out arrests of protesters by plainclothes police in unmarked vehicles.

Coghill said he thinks the mayor has handled the protests well so far. “You have 900 police officers, and some have made bad decisions, and I think the mayor has done a good job in pointing out some of those decisions,” Coghill said, such as denouncing the “snatch and grab” arrest and questioning the police’s actions during the June 1 protest in East Liberty. (The mayor initially said the police had used "smoke, not gas" during the earlier protest, which was incorrect, but he later called for a third-party investigation). “So I think he’s right on point,” Coghill said. “He bears the brunt of it, of course, but I guess that’s part of being the mayor.”

“It’s obviously a start that he’s changing policy around internally, but once you see ultimate scenes like that, and one answer is, ‘We’re investigating,’ and the next answer is, ‘It was terrible,’ it’s let’s be a little more stern on where we stand on these issues,” said O’Connor regarding Peduto’s response to the “snatch and grab” arrest.

Burgess also said Peduto’s personnel changes are “a good first step” but that the conversation must be continued. “We should not have unmarked police officers in unmarked vehicles regularly encounter residents unless it [is] the end of a carefully devised arrest,” he wrote in a text message to PublicSource. The police bureau maintains that the officers were wearing their badges and shirts that said Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, though that seems to be contested by the individual who was arrested.

Like other council members, Strassburger said Peduto’s response was “a start” and that she expects his task force will soon announce proposed legislation, but that “major changes” need to be made to how public safety handles protests. She acknowledged that following the snatch and grab arrest, some people called for firing the command staff in charge of making those decisions. “I was in favor of some firings as well,” she said, “but knowing full well that every firing is generally fought and it goes to arbitration, that would just be more money spent on police… and I just think that’s not what anyone wants right now.” 

Kail-Smith said the mayor took some, not all, of the steps she would have taken. Still, she said she doesn’t believe his response was as bad as it could have been. “Even though there have been some horrific instances… I do feel like overall, there’s been over 100 protests, and when you compare what’s been happening in other cities, I think overall, the response has been not as horrific as it could’ve been,” she said.

On Wednesday, Peduto told WESA that the tactics used in the removal of the protest marshal and the “inability” of officers to allow protesters to remain in Mellon Park “went directly against the orders that I had given to those that were in command, previously, of our operations.”

Gross said it remains to be seen whether the measures announced Friday will be effective, but that it’s “disconcerting to hear the mayor publicly saying the police are disregarding his authority...” she said. “So we need to have a public discussion as well about, who’s in control here?”

Update (6 p.m. 8/26/2020): This story was updated to reflect comments provided by the city Public Safety department and Mayor Peduto.

Juliette Rihl is a reporter for PublicSource. She can be reached at juliette@publicsource.org or on Twitter @JulietteRihl.

 

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