‘By being attacked by both sides, I’m doing my job.’ Peduto defends approach to policing

The mayor said the key to police reform is culture change, not defunding.

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Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto talks about police and protests, in the Mayor's Office conference room on Aug. 25, 2020. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto talks about police and protests in the mayor's office conference room on Aug. 26, 2020. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

After Pittsburgh police arrested a Black Lives Matter protest marshal on Aug. 15, in a jump-out style that reminded some of federal tactics in Portland, Oregon, Mayor Bill Peduto “was very clear” with bureau command staff that “this is not how we make decisions,” he told PublicSource in an hour-long interview this week.

Just a few days after Matthew Cartier’s arrest, though, police used pepper spray on a crowd of protesters near Mellon Park. In the interview, Peduto fumed about that response. “What are [the protesters] going to do? Break a swing?”

More than six and a half years into his administration, and expecting to face challengers from both sides of the political spectrum in his 2021 bid for reelection, the mayor was frank about the gap between his policing platform and the bureau’s actions. He spoke of his frustrations — with everything from uncooperative commanders to Twitter critics who think he can fire his way to a more responsive bureau — and of his plans.

“I need to know that every one of my commanders believes in the change that our administration is pushing for,” the mayor said, vowing to dispense with bureau promotion traditions if that’s what it takes to change its culture. “There is a difference between working toward [change] with enthusiasm and dragging your tail while working toward it. I need more enthusiasm.”

He doesn’t believe the solution lies in defunding the bureau’s budget of $115 million — not including pension allocations, vehicle purchases and capital budget items, like the proposed relocation of the Zone 5 police station to East Liberty. He instead advocates for a reimagined role for public safety that addresses social problems, along with changes in state law that would give him a freer hand with police personnel decisions.

“When I go to Homewood, and when I go to Manchester, and when I go to Knoxville, when I go to Sheraden, the community is not calling for defunding the police,” he said. “The community is saying, ‘Why aren’t there more police? We don’t see them here.’”

Major takeaways

  • Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is frustrated with some police bureau decisions and wants changes in law that would allow him a freer hand to promote and to fire.
  • The mayor doesn't want to "defund the police" but does want to add a social services component to public safety.
  • The mayor faces critiques from activists and police union leadership and recognizes that may affect his 2021 reelection bid.

That said, he may not include funds for a new class of police recruits in the next budget — a departure from his usual practice of bringing on two batches of recruits a year. This year, the city budgeted $336,268 to pay recruits. Starting with the 2021 budget, due to be released in November, the mayor plans to instead lay the groundwork for a crisis intervention team made up of social service professionals who would work in tandem with police.

“We can defund police, and it’s not going to change one thing,” he said. “Or we can actually bring about a cultural change that will begin the change within — within the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police and within police bureaus across this country.”

Bringing in CAHOOTS

Supporters of defunding the police advocate for having trained social service professionals handle certain nonviolent situations, like mental health crises and substance use cases. Peduto echoed the sentiment. “It's really unfair to tell a police officer that your job is to track down murderers and to deal with homeless individuals,” he said. “We’ve allowed policing to go into fields that are not a part of the crime code. And we need to separate that.”

In June, the city announced the creation of the Office of Community Health and Safety, which will house “social services, public health and social work experts who can assist first responders in situations that require longer-term assistance, harm reduction support and other services,” according to a press release. As part of the office, city officials are exploring implementing a crisis intervention team based on the CAHOOTS model in Eugene, Oregon, in which officers and social workers share certain responsibilities. CAHOOTS handles about 20% of Eugene’s 911 calls.

“In cases where there would be a violent episode, there would be an officer there with the social worker until the situation was deemed to be safe. And then the social workers would take over,” Peduto said of his plans for Pittsburgh. He said he hopes to include the blueprint for the program in the 2021 budget.

The program would require additional staffing, but the cost might be offset by another decision — one that’s something of a course change for a mayor who has touted his administration’s work to boost the police roster to 900.

Police in riot gear move into formation near the intersection of Centre and South Negley avenues as protesters advance toward them on Centre Avenue on June 1. (Photo by Alexis Lai/PublicSource)

Though his administration worked to boost police ranks to 900, it may not bring on a new recruit class next year. Here, police in riot gear stand near the intersection of Centre and South Negley avenues as protesters advance toward them on June 1. (Photo by Alexis Lai/PublicSource)

“We're looking at the real possibility of not having a recruit class next year,” he said. That could have the unintended effect of impacting the bureau’s diversity, an issue it has struggled with for decades. “[S]o many of the female officers and the Black officers are older and retiring, and so many of the new recruits have been white. And are we only going to make the force less diverse if we don't recruit?”

In July, city council enacted a hiring freeze for police recruits and shifted $250,000 from the recruit budget to the new Stop the Violence fund.

Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich and Police Chief Scott Schubert said a reduction in funds for police recruits “will greatly impact our ability to have a diverse police department,” Public Safety spokesperson Chris Togneri wrote in an email to PublicSource. “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.”

Promoting officers to command posts?

On Aug. 21, days after police used pepper spray on protesters near Mellon Park, Peduto said in a press release that he “watched interactions between police and protesters that escalated to uses of less-lethal weapons, arrest methods and other actions that I do not support, and which run counter to our common principles. This is not the reform I wanted, and that I continue to believe in today.”

He said he was assigning a new incident commander to handle protests and creating new command posts for civil affairs and public safety community engagement.

Promotions to commander are among the few bureau personnel decisions in which the mayor has a free hand. In his interview, Peduto said the rules and traditions governing promotions have hampered his efforts to change the bureau’s culture.

Under state law, when promoting people to sergeant or lieutenant, the city must choose from among the five candidates who scored highest on a civil service test. Those who are passed over retain their rankings until they are promoted, or until the list expires, usually in three years.

Fraternal Order of Police [FOP] Lodge 1 President Robert Swartzwelder said civil service rules on promotions exist to prevent corruption and patronage, and to encourage merit-based hiring. If those rules are gone? "You will return to the days of political patronage, and it will upset the balance of why civil service was created in the first place,” he said. "That's what [Peduto] seems like he wants to return to, is the days of political patronage."

He added that the FOP has challenged some of Peduto’s decisions on promotions, but has often lost in arbitration.

Commanders are not in the union, and mayors can decide who to promote to that rank and fire them without facing grievances or arbitration.

Peduto, though, said promotions to commander typically follow “protocols that I am supposed to follow, that quite frankly in the future, I am not. I am not going to promote lieutenants to commander. I may choose a sergeant. I may choose an officer.”

He said he’ll “look for a command staff that believes in the principles of our administration,” and if he finds “somebody who has been exemplary and joined the force in order to be able to change the force, and they have five years, they’re going to be wearing a cluster on their shoulder.”

Brandi Fisher, president and CEO of the Alliance for Police Accountability, said changing the promotion process is necessary but needs to happen immediately. “There is a culture in which we are promoting officers who are causing harm to Black people, instead of demoting them,” she said.

Brandi Fisher, president and CEO of the Alliance for Police Accountability, speaks at a press conference on the portico of the City-County Building on June 15, 2020. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Swartzwelder predicted that when Peduto asks for candidates for commander, he may find few takers. "Anybody who would step into a command position in this climate would be foolish,” he said.

Seeking the freedom to fire

Peduto said he wants changes in the state law that require the settlement of “all disputes” between municipalities and police and fire unions through negotiation or binding arbitration.

“I can’t fire a police officer,” the mayor said. “I know that people on Twitter don’t understand that. Unlike any other city employee, the decision is made by an arbitrator. ... And that arbitration almost always is against what our action is.”

Technically, the mayor can discharge an officer, but he may not be able to keep that firing from turning into an extended, paid vacation.

Pittsburgh's police disciplinary procedures are outlined in a three-page section of a binding arbitration decision handed down in January. It holds that any disciplinary action against an officer can ultimately be overturned by a three-member panel of arbitrators, and that the officer can be "made whole" — meaning returned to his post with back pay for time off the job — if the city fails to make its case.

“I mean, I have officers that have done terrible things, that would not be able to work in any other department in the City of Pittsburgh,” the mayor said. “But because of Pennsylvania state law, they are guaranteed that they’re going to get their job back. And not only are they going to get their job back, but the public will be required to pay for all back pay.”

Mayor Bill Peduto on Aug. 26, 2020 (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Mayor Bill Peduto on Aug. 26, 2020 (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

State law does not guarantee that fired officers will get their jobs back. Some advocates say that if the city was more consistent in its discipline, it might prevail in arbitration.

“If they disciplined their officers the way they were supposed to, when it finally went to arbitration, [the officers] would lose. Because there would be that record” of discipline, Fisher said. For instance, after the Cartier arrest, the mayor and police chief should have fired Commander Ed Trapp in order to send a message, she said.

"What the mayor wants is the complete, unfettered right to fire whoever he wants," without due process, said Swartzwelder, who added that the FOP would oppose any effort to change a fired officer’s right to arbitration.

Changing a 52-year-old law

Why are disciplinary procedures and many decisions ultimately made by arbitrators? Because state Act 111 of 1968 holds that police (and firefighters) are not allowed to strike, and as a tradeoff, their union contracts and other disputes with municipalities go to binding arbitration.

Peduto announced, in a June press release, that he’s asking the General Assembly “to limit the scope of bargaining over disciplinary procedures or specifically limit a labor arbitrator's authority to modify disciplinary penalties.”

A bill to amend Act 111, which would likely be opposed by police and firefighter unions, would be “a very courageous vote, which means that there has to be a critical mass before they even begin to start discussing it,” Peduto said. He declined in his interview to name any General Assembly supporters for such a measure.

City Councilmembers Deborah Gross and Rev. Ricky Burgess told PublicSource they are working with a group of city officials from Philadelphia, Erie, Scranton and other cities to explore amending Act 111. The group has a conversation scheduled 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 told PublicSource last week.

Swartzwelder, though, warned that if legislators “open up” Act 111, he’ll have his own requested amendment. “We're going to kick that door in ourselves and ask for a limited right to strike,” he said. Then, if the city dragged its feet in contract negotiations, he could say: “We don't have a contract this year, so we're going to walk."

Fisher said she “wholeheartedly” supports amending Act 111 but that more immediate action is needed. “People are being hurt right now. Amending Act 111 is going to take some time. In the meantime, how many lives are being lost?”

Looking ahead, but feeling a ‘deep sense of disappointment’

Peduto predicted that “21st-century policing is going to look very different than it did 20 years ago.”

Many interactions with police that “go negative” are due to symptoms of poverty, like disparities in access to housing, education and health care, Peduto said. “If we address poverty, which is the core root of so many of these symptoms, we will help to lessen the impact on all those other issues, more so than simply cutting the police budget, which will in those areas that need it, hurt those communities more.”

In the meantime, Peduto said he's in the same boat as every other big-city mayor, trying to address "the need for reform, balanced against the morale of the officers. And I think it’s important for the officers to understand that their morale is in the equation, even though it may not be what’s being yelled through the megaphone.”

Swartzwelder responded that police "morale is in the toilet because these political pundits continue to badmouth their own police force." He said that in contrast to the drumbeat of criticism of police handling of protests, there's been little recognition of police work like the effort to save one-year-old Zykier Young, of Spring Hill, who died from a bullet wound Monday.

Council President Theresa Kail-Smith credited the mayor for "doing a good job under very difficult circumstances," but had one concern. "There are times when social media can sway the directions or the opinions of the administration," she said. "I don't think we need to govern according to what's being tweeted for the day."

Peduto said that the city’s handling of protests has cost him some longtime supporters.

“The ones that have broken away, that have been supporters in the past, I don’t have any anger or animosity — just a sort of deep, deep sense of disappointment,” he said. “I sort of look at it as, if I were only being attacked by one side, I would not be a mayor; I’d be an activist.”

Fisher said she personally likes Peduto but feels he needs to be held accountable. “We don’t fight with a sense of urgency because we just want to. It’s because our lives are literally on the line. And no relationship is worth the lives of people. And that’s what he needs to understand.”

Peduto predicted that in his bid next year for a third term, he’ll face opposition “from both the right and the left, but I welcome that opposition, and I welcome that debate, on a stage, in order to be able to share what we’ve done, what we’re doing and what we’ll continue to do.”

He added: “By being attacked by both sides, I’m doing my job in order to serve the people of Pittsburgh, and not the politics of Pittsburgh.”

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

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

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