The 1995 death of Jonny Gammage Jr. remains a flashpoint in the discussion of police accountability in the Pittsburgh area. His death — akin to the more recent high-profile killings of unarmed black men by white police officers throughout the nation — helped spur the creation of a police review board in the city of Pittsburgh.
Now, more than a decade later, a newly formed group wants to pick up where that movement left off. The Committee for a Civilian Police Review Board of Allegheny County is calling for the creation of a board that would have jurisdiction to review alleged misconduct of all police officers in the county. However, there is skepticism about the group’s efforts as several factors call into question the feasibility of creating such a board.
“It is more important than ever to have a countywide board,” said Khalid Raheem, a social worker and the committee’s lead organizer. “Due to gentrification, black people who previously lived in the city are now moving to the boroughs, and we need to be able to address allegations of police brutality and misconduct at the borough level.”
Two years after Gammage’s death, voters in the city passed a public referendum to establish the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board [CPRB]. The CPRB is responsible for providing independent investigations of city police conduct and making policy and procedure recommendations to the mayor and police chief.
Despite the fact that Gammage died at the hands of suburban police officers, the focus remained on creating a board in Pittsburgh. Maybe for good reason. There are 107 municipal police departments in Allegheny County. Elizabeth Pittinger, the CPRB executive director, said each of the police departments in the county would need to agree to subject their officers to this additional oversight if such a board were to be created.
It’s not the first time the idea has been explored either. Pittinger said she explored the possibility with Allegheny County staff several years ago in collaboration with a Public Safety Vision Team convened by County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
With roughly 215 officers, the Allegheny County Police Department is the second largest in the county; the Pittsburgh force is the county’s largest with about 850 officers.
Were such a county-level police review board to be established, Allegheny County Police Superintendent Coleman McDonough wrote in an email that, “The department complies with all federal, state and local laws — and if such a structure would be put in place by law, the same would be true for this.”
The creation of the existing CPRB coincided with Pittsburgh becoming the first city in the country where the U.S. Department of Justice [DOJ] imposed a federal consent decree on its police department. The 1997 decree required the police department to document traffic stops, train officers in cultural diversity and track civilian complaints.
In the years leading up to the consent decree, the Pittsburgh chapters of the ACLU and NAACP had collected 400 reports of police misconduct and mismanagement. Their research became the basis of a 1996 class-action lawsuit the groups filed on behalf of 66 plaintiffs who believed the Pittsburgh police violated their civil rights. Amid this advocacy and organizing, Gammage was killed.
Gammage, a 31-year-old black man, was driving on Route 51 on Oct. 12, 1995, when a white Brentwood Borough police officer stopped him after entering Pittsburgh city limits. Four other white suburban officers soon joined him. Within minutes, Gammage died, unable to breathe from the pressure officers put on his chest and neck.
His father told reporters that all his son did wrong was be a black man behind the wheel of a nice car (one that belonged to his Pittsburgh Steelers cousin).
In the absence of federal intervention or a galvanizing incident, how would a countywide police review board get funded?
Pittsburgh’s board is financially supported by the city’s general fund at about $500,000 a year. The CPRB's expenditures include staff salaries, supplies and trainings. Pittinger said municipalities would have to financially contribute to maintain a countywide board.
Another hurdle, she explained, is that borough police departments are not represented by the same police union. Unions from different locales would have to agree on one set of terms for the board.
Carl Bailey is secretary-treasurer and principal officer for Teamsters 205, a union that represents more than 50 area police departments including Baldwin, Edgewood and Duquesne. He declined to comment other than to say any such board would need to have police representation to be fair and effective for all parties.
Raheem says he supports the participation of police on the board they’re proposing.
Brentwood Chief of Police Adam Zeppuhar, who was not employed by the department at the time of Gammage’s death or the organizing of Pittsburgh’s CPRB, said he likes the concept of a review board for Allegheny County but cautions that it would need to be neutral and unbiased. “I am not opposed if the board has a tried-and-true process,” Zeppuhar said. “You want a board that is not predisposed against law enforcement… I am sure there are good models in other cities as a starting point.”
Dennis McDonough, president of the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association [ACCPA], pointed out that there are already policies in place at the borough level that inform the way police departments respond to internal complaints. McDonough, also chief of the South Park Township Police Department, said the association distributed a citizen complaint policy in 2010 to ACCPA members. The policy, he said, offers guidelines as a starting point for bureaus that don’t already have their own policies. McDonough declined to provide PublicSource a copy of the policy.
McDonough has been a police officer in South Park for 45 years and has served as chief for the past five years. He said he isn’t aware of a formal complaint of police abuse ever being filed with the department during his tenure. Most issues with policing, he said, can be addressed at the municipal level. He encourages those with concerns to handle them locally.
“I have 15,000 residents of South Park that are my bosses,” he said. “It is all in what residents expect of their government. When you fund a municipality, that municipality should take care of their own house.”
As a black man, Braddock resident Jim Kidd doesn’t think that’s enough. Kidd, who has attended committee meetings, said he feels especially aware of the potential of police violence after the highly publicized deaths of Alton Sterling and Stephon Clark who died in altercations with police.
“We are acceptable victims,” Kidd said, “and there are no consequences. We should be able to evaluate the service records of [police in] Allegheny County.”
The options people have now
At present, a person who experiences police misconduct in one of Allegheny County’s municipalities has a couple options for recourse.
David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and host of the Criminal Injustice podcast, wrote in an email that an individual can typically file a grievance with the police department.
“By its nature, this kind of process is not independent and that's a shortcoming,” he wrote. ”And sometimes these systems are worthless and really only work to protect officers. This is hard to judge from the outside.”
Another option is to file a federal lawsuit, which Harris said is difficult to win. To hold a police officer accountable in a federal suit for violating a person’s civil rights, a lawyer needs to do more than prove excessive force. Harris said the lawsuit must establish that an officer made a mistake, and it must prove that the officer knew he or she was knowingly violating Constitutional law as they committed the act.
Not only is there a significant burden of proof but federal cases are also costly. Harris said most plaintiffs in these kinds of cases have limited financial means. Pursuing a federal case often requires hours of investigative work and depositions. If a client can't pay for this labor, then the firm must eat the cost.
For activist Raheem, he said he hopes the Committee for a Civilian Police Review Board meetings will be a place for organizing and sharing experiences with local policing. The group’s meetings are open to the public and are held at the Braddock Carnegie Library the third Wednesday of each month. So far, about a dozen concerned citizens from the city and boroughs have been regularly joining the monthly meetings that started in February.
Raheem said future meetings will be held in various locations throughout Allegheny County to encourage regional buy-in.
The board they’re hoping to establish, he added, would be inclusive to undocumented people and others who may not be considered ‘citizens,’ hence the decision to call it a civilian police review board.
Raheem advocated for Pittsburgh’s CPRB in the 1990s. He participated in protests outside of the Brentwood Borough Police Department and the district attorney’s office, calling for justice for Gammage.
From Raheem’s past in working to establish the Pittsburgh review board, he anticipates some opposition.
The Pittsburgh Fraternal Order of Police [FOP] challenged the creation of the city’s CPRB. Marshall Hynes, a former FOP president, said in a 1996 interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "Our opposition is that a [Civilian Review Board] already starts out with a bias against us… We're investigated by internal affairs, the D.A.'s office, the attorney general's office, the FBI and the state and national human relations commissions."
The FOP contested the validity of signatures submitted to support the referendum to create the CPRB. It filed a lawsuit, first fought in the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas and later appealed in Commonwealth Court. The courts eventually invalidated several hundred signatures that were deemed either illegible, duplicates, fake or did not match the address on record. Enough valid signatures remained for the referendum to go forward.
Raheem said he hopes for support from local politicians on this new initiative.
“A civilian review board is not anti-police but it is pro-people,” he said. “I would argue that police have a tremendous amount of power.”
So far, one of the officials needed to move his plan for a countywide police review board forward appears open to the possibility, were it to gain support from the public. “District Attorney [Stephen] Zappala would defer to the wishes of the citizens on this,” Mike Manko, spokesman for Zappala, wrote in an email. “If they believe that would be the best way to proceed, then that’s what the county should do.”
Correction (6/13/2018): A previous version of the story incorrectly characterized the response from Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and spokeswoman Amie Downs. Downs referred the reporter to other contacts in county government for comment.
Nichole Faina is a freelance journalist in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Madeleine Davison.