Six months ago, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration sought to answer summer protests with a task force report on police reform. Also in October, the city started the process of firing Officer Paul Abel.
Both may prove to be important steps for a city in which police-community relations have long been fraught — or they could fade to footnotes in a decades-long debate.
far more readily than whites. The termination was done quietly, but in the wake of the mayor’s public statements that he needed more power to fire police. Together, they reflect Peduto’s approach to policing as he runs for a third term.
Will either action have lasting effects?
As the nation processes a spate of police-involved shootings and the trial of former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin in the May death of George Floyd, the Peduto administration is reporting limited progress on the task force’s recommendations. The police union, meanwhile, is challenging Abel’s firing, saying the city failed to meet a contractually required deadline for a disciplinary meeting.
Here’s a look at the administration’s moves since its October actions.
A high-profile firing
Abel, a city officer since 2000, had a public profile since a 2008 incident in which he shot a man in the hand. He gained Internet notoriety in September after the filmed arrest, at the Squirrel Hill farmer’s market, of a man who confronted the officer about his Blue Lives Matter face mask.
On Oct. 11, while working a secondary detail at Heinz Field, Abel arrested a man, according to court filings, for obstructing highways, disorderly conduct and access device fraud, which typically involves misuse of a credit card. The charges were dropped, and the arrest became the subject of a disciplinary process in which police supervisors questioned whether Abel had evidence to back up the arrest, according to the arbitrator’s award.
On Dec. 17, as a result of the October incident, the city fired Abel. The former officer declined PublicSource’s interview request.
Peduto has claimed that his efforts to reshape police culture have been constrained by his inability to fire officers unless they commit crimes. Officers have the contractual right to arbitration, and if arbitrators find that they were terminated in violation of the contract, they can return to work with back pay.
In March, arbitrators upheld Abel’s firing. This month, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1 [FOP] challenged that decision in a complaint filed in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.
Rather than challenging the city’s right to terminate based on the Oct. 11 arrest, the FOP’s complaint focuses on the bureau’s postponement of a grievance meeting required under the contract’s disciplinary provisions. The postponement pushed the meeting from Nov. 23 to Dec. 1, without the FOP’s consent. Because it unilaterally postponed the meeting, the FOP’s complaint argues that the city’s firing of Abel violated the contract, and he should be reinstated with back pay.
Peduto said the FOP’s complaint epitomized an FOP tendency to fight every disciplinary action. “So when you’re looking at a technicality, for a person like Officer Abel, who has an entire career of abusing a badge, you aren’t honoring the uniform of Pittsburgh police officers who have worn it in the past or who will wear it in the future,” Peduto said.
FOP President Robert Swartzwelder countered in an interview that the union has allowed numerous disciplinary actions to go unchallenged, but insists that officers must get due process. If the union missed a contractual deadline, he said, the city would say, “‘too bad, so sad for you.’”
Swartzwelder’s advice to Peduto: “Rather than issuing polarizing comments, make sure your internal investigators and your command staff are doing their job correctly.”
The city has not yet filed its answer to the complaint.
The bureau’s 2020 Statistical Report, issued April 19, showed two officer terminations last year, along with 15 suspensions, 18 written reprimands and 65 other disciplinary actions.
Black arrest rates and a bid for better data
Even as Peduto defends individual actions like firing Abel, his own task force and subsequent data continues to point to a systemic issue that may be worsening.
From 2017 through 2019, Black men in Pittsburgh were five times as likely to be arrested as were white men, according to an independent data analysis by Ralph Bangs, former associate director of the University of Pittsburgh Center on Race and Social Problems.
In 2020, city police charged fewer people, but disparities widened. Arrests of Black men amounted to 11.7% of the city’s Black male population — six times the 1.9% rate for white men. Among women, arrest rates for Black residents were four times those for white residents.
That means policing “actually makes me less safe,” said Jasiri X, founder and CEO of 1Hood Media and a leader in Pittsburgh-area protests following Floyd’s death. “What we need is less police.”
The bureau’s statistical report also reflects a disparity, showing that 65% of arrested suspects were Black. Citywide, around 23% of residents are Black.
Police Commander Christopher Ragland, who leads the bureau’s new Office of Strategy, Accountability and Resiliency, said the bureau is serious about analyzing and, where necessary, changing its practices.
Ragland pointed to a series of changes, some predating the task force report, and some recommendations that await further study.
- The bureau hopes to institute, early next year, a new report management system that will allow for deeper analysis of all police activity, with an eye toward better understanding racial trends in enforcement.
- It is adopting a system called IAPro, which will allow it to track a number of officer metrics, from attendance to use of force, and apply an algorithm to tell command staff, “Hey, we need to kind of watch out for this individual,” as Ragland put it.
- It has deployed new body cameras that automatically activate when an officer at a scene pulls a weapon and allow supervisors to watch the event remotely, in real time.
- It plans to release data on complaints and discipline against officers as Pittsburgh did for PublicSource last year. Ragland noted that Philadelphia releases information on complaints against police, but not the officer names. That city updates the data monthly.
- It awaits a report that the University of Pittsburgh Institute of Politics [IOP] has commissioned from think tanks RAND and RTI International on racial disparities in law enforcement, from stops and arrests to sentencing, in Pittsburgh and elsewhere in Allegheny County. The IOP estimates that study will be done in June 2022.
Swartzwelder said the FOP welcomes technology improvements and the development of better data on policing, as long as the data is thoroughly and fairly analyzed.
A new team for behavioral situations
What should police do when called about the theft of oatmeal and peanut butter?
When that situation arose in recent weeks, Pittsburgh police called in a team from Allegheny Health Network's Homeless and Urban Poverty Medicine Program, according to Dan Palka, that program’s administrative director. Within 15 minutes, the team’s social workers showed up and helped the person get food legally, then started connecting them to long-term services, he said.
Since early February, several of the program’s social worker teams roam the three Pittsburgh police zones serving the North Side, Downtown/Hill District and northeastern neighborhoods, helping police to address situations involving addiction, homelessness, poverty or behavioral health problems. The city is paying Allegheny Health Network $1.2 million in federal grant money for around one year of the service, and also donated an old ambulance.
Palka said police called in the teams 21 times in the first two weeks of April.
Sgt. Tiffany Kline-Costa, who heads the Pittsburgh Police Community Engagement Office, said the teams have been fast and responsive. Swartzwelder said he hadn’t gotten much feedback from officers and questioned whether an outside agency can be counted on to address situations that arise late at night or on holidays, as police do.
‘Less lethal’ reform lags
Last year, Pittsburgh police used tear gas, rubber bullets, bean bag rounds and other weapons against peaceful demonstrators, the task force found, calling restraint in the use of those tactics "a matter of the greatest urgency." The task force recommended immediate hire of an independent organization to recommend new policies and a moratorium on such tactics if a report can't be completed quickly.
Both Ragland and Swartzwelder said there has been no change in policy on the use of those tools and tactics, though the bureau assigned new supervisors to handle crowd control situations.
Ragland said the bureau is waiting to see a report that Washington, D.C.-based public safety consultants The Densus Group is producing for the city's Civilian Police Review Board. That report will focus on the bureau's controversial handling of protests on June 1.
Several task force members have been in continued contact with the administration, tracking progress on its recommendations, according to David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh professor of law specializing in law enforcement issues, who served on the panel.
“Some of it has been slower than some of us would like, but I don’t think there’s any denying that there has been forward movement,” Harris told PublicSource.
He added that the process going on in Pittsburgh isn’t novel. “A lot of cities are going through something like this,” with those that have had recent, controversial police-involved shootings typically moving faster than those that have not. “There are very few places that aren’t looking to make real change.”
This story was fact-checked by Megan Gent. Danielle Cruz contributed.
Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @richelord.