‘If your mom can go in and see it, so can the cops’: How law enforcement is using social media to identify protesters in Pittsburgh

A task force made up of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies has charged 32 people with crimes related to the recent Black Lives Matter protests in Pittsburgh. In a majority of the cases, charging documents show that law enforcement used social media as a tool to identify suspects and gather evidence on alleged crimes. In early June, after protests in Downtown and East Liberty over the death of George Floyd, the City of Pittsburgh created the Damage Assessment and Accountability Task Force [DAAT] to investigate incidents of violence, looting and vandalism at recent protests. DAAT has so far charged 32 people — including several prominent local activists — in a total of 34 cases, with alleged crimes stemming from the protests. The charges range from disorderly conduct and failure to disperse to burglary and weapons of mass destruction.

(Photo via iStock)

Emails show Allegheny County district attorney’s office used trial of controversial facial recognition technology Clearview

“Dystopian” and “'Black Mirror'-esque” are among the ways critics have described Clearview, a facial recognition technology startup founded in 2016. The program’s ability to scrape photos off of the web and instantly aggregate information on just about anyone with an online presence, without their knowledge, has drawn the ire of privacy advocates, Democratic lawmakers and the same social media companies it relies on for data. 

The system has been used by more than 600 law enforcement agencies in the United States and abroad — including, as newly obtained records show, the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office. 

Emails obtained by PublicSource through an open records request show that Clearview trial accounts were linked to email addresses of four employees in the office of District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr.: analysts Andrew Colvin, Ted DeAngelis and Norah Xiong, and detective Lyle Graber. The trials started at different times, with emails first referencing a trial on Feb. 7 and last noting a log in on March 17. Three of the employee accounts were signed in to more than once.

A police officer blocks traffic as people walk by chanting during a June 18, 2020 march against police violence from Freedom Corner. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Who polices the police? In Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, a critical crossroads for civilian review

The death of George Floyd and other incidents of police brutality have catalyzed nationwide calls for police reform and put civilian review of law enforcement at the forefront of policy conversations. Between a recent call for a referendum to strengthen Pittsburgh’s Citizen Police Review Board [CPRB] and renewed efforts to create a countywide board, local elected officials are taking steps to create and expand civilian oversight.

Pittsburgh motorcycle officers Downtown during a June 4, 2020 rally against racism and police violence. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Activists call for defunding the police. Here are 6 key stats about the $115 million Pittsburgh police budget.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death by a police officer in Minneapolis and other cases of police brutality, activists and Democratic lawmakers across the country are calling for the “defunding” of police departments. The idea raises many questions. What does “defund the police” mean? Is it viable? And what does Pittsburgh’s police budget currently look like?

A sign pointing voters to the mail-in ballot drop-off box in the lobby of the Allegheny County Office Building. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Allegheny County voters identify 5 issues to address before November presidential election

Between the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing protests over the death of George Floyd, a brand new statewide mail-in voting system and a last-minute deadline extension, the Pennsylvania primary election on June 2 faced unprecedented challenges. Some voters felt confident with their experience voting by mail, while others worried if their vote would be counted. For some in-person voters, the process didn't differ much from normal; others were frustrated over changes in polling locations and worried about a lack of social distancing. Anrica Caldwell of Penn Hills called mail-in voting “easy, safe and a convenient way to continue to exercise your right to vote.”

Ethan Boyle of the Strip District also said he voted by mail without any issues. “I think the process went smoothly,” he said.

Ballot scanning machines set up in preparation for the June 2 primary election in Allegheny County. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Gov. Wolf extends vote-by-mail deadline in Allegheny, five other counties through June 9

Gov. Tom Wolf announced Monday evening, the night before the primary election, that he is extending the vote-by-mail deadline by a week for six counties, including Allegheny County. The new deadline for ballots to be received in those counties is 5 p.m. Tuesday, June 9, per an executive order. But ballots must still be postmarked by Tuesday, June 2, according to the press release. “I can’t do anything about the election day, but I am extending the time to actually get votes in,” he said. “So if you vote, and your vote gets in by next Tuesday… it’ll count.”

The previous deadline to receive mail-in ballots was 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 2.The announcement came as a surprise to many, including local officials: Allegheny County spokesperson Amie Downs was not aware of the extension when PublicSource contacted her Monday evening to confirm.

(Courtesy photo)

Reports emerge of completed mail-in ballots being returned to voters instead of delivered to Allegheny County elections office

In recent days, some Allegheny County voters have experienced a perplexing problem: their completed mail-in ballots have been returned back to their homes by the postal service instead of being delivered to the county elections division. One voter, Jane Downing, said she dropped off her ballot in a public mailbox in East Liberty last week. Several days later, it was delivered back to her. “I thought, ‘This isn’t right. There’s something wrong with this,’” she said.

The traffic court cashier window at Pittsburgh Municipal Court in Downtown.

Allegheny County selected to participate in national fine and fee reform initiative following PublicSource investigation

Allegheny County is one of 10 locales selected to participate in a national initiative on fine and fee reform. The announcement follows a PublicSource investigation of the impacts of court debt in Allegheny County. There is more than $350 million in unpaid court debt in the county dating back to 1970. For residents who are unable to pay their fines and fees, the implications are severe: nonpayment can result in arrest warrants, driver’s license suspensions and even jail time.  

As an inaugural member of the Cities & Counties for Fine and Fee Justice, the county was awarded $50,000 to put toward reform efforts. It will work with policy experts and other cohort members over 18 months to develop “bold, innovative solutions,” according to a press release.