Every year, Pittsburgh’s Bureau of Police issues a report showing how many officers have been reprimanded, counseled, suspended and terminated, and for what types of violations. And the city’s Office of Municipal Investigations [OMI] separately characterizes and tallies the accusations it probed in the prior year.
However, the city has not traditionally released data that allows for analysis of OMI complaints and bureau Disciplinary Action Reports [DARs] down to the individual officer level. The city’s data release to PublicSource on Nov. 30, in response to a request under the state Right-to-Know Act, appears to be unique in its history.
“I think it’s very positive and encouraging that they were able to compile this list and provide it in this way to you,” said Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the city’s independent Citizen Police Review Board since 1999. “I’m not aware if it’s ever been done before.”
David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh professor of law specializing in law enforcement issues, characterized the city’s release to PublicSource as “an improvement,” but “clearly not enough to get a full picture.” Other cities regularly release more information on complaints against police.
Citing Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Act, PublicSource asked the City of Pittsburgh for data regarding police-related complaints filed with OMI and disciplinary matters handled within the Bureau of Police. Because state law bars the city from releasing officer personnel file material, PublicSource did not ask for officer names. Instead, PublicSource asked the city to substitute numbers for officer names.
Releasing such data is a step toward shoring up public confidence in law enforcement, said Jim Burch, president of the National Police Foundation, a Virginia-based nonprofit that encourages the use of innovation and science in law enforcement. Cities are releasing data “to demonstrate to the communities that they serve that they are willing to be transparent” about complaints received and how they are handled, he said.
Some cities, including Philadelphia and New Orleans, have put online similarly anonymized police complaint data. The city of Norman, Oklahoma, publishes online, quarterly data including each incident’s type and date; an officer-specific number (but not name), years of employment, age, race and gender; the accusing citizen’s race, sex and whether the citizen was arrested; and the city’s finding.
Providing numbers associated with individual officers shows that the “agency is committed to not just doing the minimum,” Burch said. “This is not just checking the box. This is going further to reassure the community.”
Minneapolis takes a different approach, allowing online lookup by officer name, but then providing only case numbers, case status and discipline imposed. Typically, there is no detail on the allegation.
Releasing complaint data including the officer’s name has advantages and drawbacks, said Burch, a former Department of Justice official.
“It does signal even greater transparency,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that. We still have the open question of what value that name gives you. … It could open the door to things like doxxing,” in which people could hunt down personal information on the accused officer and post it online.
Harris, who was a member of Peduto’s Community Task Force on Police Reform, added that police sometimes argue that releasing their names could put them, or their loved ones, in danger. He added that it’s “hard to argue that it couldn’t happen,” though he didn’t know of a case in which it had. He said Pittsburgh could consider releasing the names of officers who were the subjects of serious accusations sustained by OMI.
Pittsburgh provided PublicSource with some data on 4,669 allegations against police and bureau-related personnel. For 3,950 of the allegations, the data included:
- the date of the occurrence
- a characterization of the source, or of the way in which OMI received the allegation
- a short description of the general nature of the allegation
- the bureau directive allegedly violated
- OMI’s finding (sustained, not resolved, unfounded, officer exonerated or other resolutions in a handful of cases)
- the date the finding was finalized
- a random identification number assigned to each accused officer.
The 719 allegations for which data was not complete included allegations which 1) were not reported in a timely way or which were disregarded for other reasons, 2) did not identify any specific officer, 3) named civilian employees, or 4) were still under review.
PublicSource broke the 3,950 allegations for which data was complete into 11 categories based on the natures of the allegations and the directives implicated. The categories:
- Conduct toward public or coworkers
- Discrimination, civil rights, bias
- Domestic abuse or domestic violence policies
- Evidentiary, investigative or body cam rules
- Harassment, retaliation or official oppression
- Other standards of conduct or procedures
- Searches and seizures
- Towing, traffic, booting, other vehicle matters
- Truthfulness or report writing
- Use of force or weapons.
The city also provided data on 1,174 DARs. The city declined to provide information on resulting discipline, citing one of the Right-to-Know Act’s 30 exceptions. That police data showed that a dozen officers have each faced 10 or more accusations that were part of DARs, and two officers have been the subjects of 33 DARs each.
Burch said he was “encouraged by what Pittsburgh gave [PublicSource]. I think it’s important that they gave you 10 years of data.”
He added that it was “disappointing” that Pittsburgh declined to detail the disciplinary decisions made as a result of the DARs and OMI investigations. “[I]f we know that an officer has been found to have violated a significant policy,” he said, “… the natural question the community would want to know is, what happened as the result?”
Harris agreed that the city should disclose any discipline imposed in relation to an accusation.
“There’s just no reason this shouldn’t come out every year, or even six months,” he said, “so citizens of this city have some idea of what’s going on within the police force and what happens when a disciplinary action goes through the system.”
Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @richelord.
This story was fact-checked by Matt Maielli.
This fact-based local reporting drives impact and creates change. Help power that impact.
James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” PublicSource exists to help the Pittsburgh region face its realities and create opportunities for change. When we shine a light on inequity in our region, like the “completely unacceptable” conditions in low-income housing in McKeesport, things change. When we ask questions about policymakers’ decisions, like how Allegheny County is handling COVID-19 safety for its employees, things change. When we push for transparency on issues that affect the public, like in the use of facial recognition software by Pittsburgh police, things change.
It takes a lot of time, skill and resources to produce journalism like this. Our stories are always made available for free so that they can benefit the most people, regardless of ability to pay. But as an independent, nonprofit newsroom, we count on donations from our readers to support this crucial work. Can you make a contribution of any amount (or better yet, set up a recurring monthly gift) to help ensure we can continue to report on what matters and tell stories for a better Pittsburgh?