Disciplinary action against Pittsburgh police doubled in the years 2017 through 2021 as compared to the prior five years.
The release of detailed police accountability data by PublicSource and City Cast Pittsburgh is unprecedented in Pittsburgh and comes as the city contends with fallout from the October death, in officers’ custody, of Jim Rogers. The 54-year-old’s death, after he was repeatedly shocked with a Taser in a Bloomfield arrest, has spurred five firings, a civil rights lawsuit by his estate and a county grand jury investigation.
The data shows more than 5,600 allegations against Pittsburgh police since 2012. More than 4,200 of those came through the civilian-led Office of Municipal Investigations [OMI], which takes complaints from anyone with concerns about a city employee’s conduct. The rest were processed through the bureau’s internal Disciplinary Action Report [DAR] system, which includes allegations ranging from failure to wear a seatbelt to inappropriate use of force.
The city did not release the specific results of each DAR, but other bureau data suggests that around 56% resulted in reprimands, suspensions or terminations, with the rest bringing counseling, retraining or no action.
The surge in DARs was driven by leadership changes and the use of video by the police and public rather than any dramatic shift in officer practices, according to public safety officials.
“We’re trying to hold people accountable for their actions, and really, to change the behavior,” said Police Chief Scott Schubert, who took on that role in 2017 and instituted bureau-wide use of body-worn cameras the year after. “Discipline in itself is not a bad thing. People make mistakes, and you have to get a real understanding of what occurred and why.”
Brandi Fisher, president and CEO of the Alliance for Police Accountability [APA], countered that the higher number of DARs may reflect “an uptick in boldness in the way that [police] are interacting with people” rather than heightened vigilance by bureau brass.
Officer Robert Swartzwelder, president of the Fraternal Order of Police lodge that represents uniformed personnel up to the rank of lieutenant, blamed “public pressure being placed on political figures” and said overly punitive discipline for minor infractions could hurt officer recruitment and retention.
“I think it’s righteous and legitimate pressure,” said Jasiri X, founder and CEO of 1Hood Media, which joins the APA in the grassroots Coalition to Reimagine Public Safety.
He pointed to Rogers’ death as evidence that more pressure and more change are warranted. “I have not seen the willingness by Chief Schubert to change the culture of policing.”
Key findings from a decade of police accountability data include:
- Complaints to OMI alleging use of force decreased, even as internal bureau disciplinary actions in those categories increased.
- In regard to police-related complaints handled by OMI, allegations doubled or more in regard to towing, bias or discrimination and traffic enforcement.
- Bureau disciplinary action increased markedly in areas including conduct unbecoming toward the public or toward other bureau personnel and incompetence.
- OMI in the last five years sustained nearly 12% of the allegations it investigated, meaning it found that an officer violated a policy. That’s up from less than 8% in the prior five years.
- The year 2020 – marked by frequent protests spurred by the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis officer – was a high-water mark in terms of bureau disciplinary actions, with more than five times as many internal allegations leveled against officers as in the lowest year, which was 2012.
The data published by PublicSource and City Cast contrasts with the “really stunted and difficult-to-use single page on internal discipline” that the bureau discloses annually, said David Harris, a law professor focused on policing at the University of Pittsburgh, and a member of new Mayor Ed Gainey’s community health and safety transition committee.
There is a public perception, Harris added, that the bureau is undisciplined. With the release of more detailed data, he said, “The public can make up its own mind about those things.”
Wendell Hissrish was appointed city public safety director in 2016, and Schubert ascended to chief the year after. The surge in DARs started in 2017 and accelerated through 2020, before slowing last year.
Hissrich, a former FBI unit chief, said he brought over a disciplinary philosophy that is prevalent in federal law enforcement. “If you see repeat offenders, and you see an officer going down the wrong path, you put them on a performance improvement plan, you sit down with their supervisor, and you talk about how to improve that,” he said.
Schubert said the vast majority of officers just want to help the public, and said a lot of the city’s officers are excellent.
He added that nearly half of the bureau’s uniformed force has been hired in the last five years. “We know they're going to make some mistakes,” the chief said, and the bureau should try to figure out why, “and keep them on the right path.”
Swartzwelder said that since he became union president in 2016, he’s observed a trend of DARs alleging “extremely minor infractions or mistakes as opposed to true misconduct.” He added that even an oral reprimand can affect an officer’s ability to be promoted or assigned to specialized units for several years.
Schubert said the bureau’s decision to equip all officers with body-worn cameras contributed to an increase in DARs and an improvement in the effectiveness of internal investigations.
Bureau policy requires that officers turn the cameras on during a wide range of interactions with the public and obligates supervisors to review the footage whenever there is a complaint or someone resists arrest. Supervisors are also required to review a “sufficient number” of randomly audited camera-captured incidents to ensure that bureau policies are being followed.
DARs spur a lengthy process that ultimately reaches the public safety director – now Lee Schmidt, who replaced Hissrich in February – and can result in anything from a reprimand to termination. Swartzwelder noted that the filing of a DAR doesn’t necessarily mean that the allegation resulted in discipline. If the union disagrees with a punishment, it can invoke arbitration.
The bureau reports annually the total numbers of terminations, suspensions and reprimands it imposes, but does not publicly detail the incidents for which it took those actions. The bureau counts each DAR once, even if it contains multiple allegations, whereas the data released by PublicSource and City Cast tallies allegations individually.
While the bureau’s reports reflect the rise in the number of DARs, it shows few clear trends regarding the severity of the discipline. In 2020 – the most recent year for which the bureau has released data – 17% of DARs resulted in suspensions or terminations. That’s slightly higher than the 14% average across the available data, which does not include 2016, when the bureau’s annual report included no disciplinary data.
Allegations against police received by OMI rose by nearly 12% in the last five years, compared to the prior five years. OMI Manager Erin Bruni attributes that to increased inclination by the public to file complaints, and to the prevalence of cameras — both on the officers and in the general public’s cell phones — which has made it easier to document and report incidents.
Schubert does not oversee OMI but said he suspected that the cameras may have been responsible for a decline in allegations that the agency received related to use of force and conduct unbecoming to the public.
“When you announce that you have [a camera] on, it will then act as a deescalation a lot of times,” he said.
Jasiri X suggested that the comparatively modest rise in allegations received by OMI may reflect, in part, that “people do not have faith in these institutions that are supposed to investigate officers” and instead may just get a lawyer if aggrieved.
OMI has no power to discipline officers, but rather investigates and sends its findings to the bureau, which may then generate a DAR.
Cities including Philadelphia, New Orleans and New York put detailed police accountability data online. To date, Pittsburgh has released only summaries and analyses of allegations made to OMI and bureau statistics, including DAR numbers.
Asked whether Pittsburgh could follow Philadelphia and regularly release police accountability data, Gainey called that “a good question” which he has had “no chance” to consider. “I would have to look at that in order to be able to give you a correct answer.”
Harris said that Pittsburgh policing is at “a real moment of inflection,” with a need for “top-to-bottom” re-examination. “The more transparent they can be for the public,” he said, “the better for everyone.”
Absent from the PublicSource and City Cast data is any reference to the incident that resulted in Rogers’ death. On Dec. 28, then-Mayor Bill Peduto announced that disciplinary processes had begun in regard to the involved officers. On March 23, Gainey’s administration announced that five officers had been fired in relation to the incident.
The incident’s absence from the data appears to be driven by the fact that the disciplinary hearings did not start until this year.
The response to Rogers’ death is being closely watched.
“By all accounts, he wasn't posing a threat to anybody,” said Jasiri X. “But yet he still lost his life. If that is allowed to take place, then any interaction between the police and Black people could lead to our death.”
The APA’s Fisher said the firing of five officers isn’t sufficient to constitute justice, but could nonetheless be “transformative.”
“We haven’t seen this level of accountability when it comes to Pittsburgh policing ever, I believe,” she said. She attributed that to advocacy, which has turned police accountability from an unpopular topic to one that must be addressed in any credible candidate’s platform.
“We’re in a good place when it comes to progress, but we still have a lot of work to do.”
About the data
PublicSource in January asked the City of Pittsburgh, under the state Right-to-Know Act, for data involving complaints about city police received by the Office of Municipal Investigations [OMI], and involving 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 Act.
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. https://pittsburghpa.gov/police/manual-procedural-orders
The DAR data
The OMI data
This story was fact-checked by Abigail Nemec-Merwede.
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Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your MATCHED donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.