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

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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)

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)

Update (7/27/2020): Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto on July 22 signed the bill to put a referendum question that could expand the powers of the Citizen Police Review Board [CPRB] on the ballot in November. If passed, the referendum would require officers to cooperate with CPRB investigations.

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.

Just how effective are civilian police review boards? “Realistically, that is kind of the million-dollar question that everyone wants to know,” said Liana Perez, director of operations of  National Association for the Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement [NACOLE]. Some experts say that the boards can improve public trust in police and reduce bias in investigations of officers. Yet the experts PublicSource spoke to noted that boards are often ineffective in executing thorough investigations and bringing about discipline. 

Between 1998 and 2017, 3% of the more than 3,000 complaints CPRB received resulted in public hearings, one of the final stages of the board’s process. Public hearings are a step toward disciplinary recommendations presented to the police chief and mayor — but they are only recommendations. Across that time period, Pittsburgh’s police chiefs fully rejected many of CPRB’s recommendations.

CPRB Executive Director Elizabeth Pittinger said so few complaints are given public hearings because most, upon CPRB’s assessment, are deemed unfounded or do not show a clear violation of policies. “What we’re seeing is, the complaints that come to us, the facts don’t bear it out,” she said.

Fawn Walker-Montgomery, a member of The Allegheny County Black Activist/Organizer Collective and co-founder of Take Action Mon Valley, addresses the crowd gathered at the City-County Building in Downtown on June 15.

Fawn Walker-Montgomery, member of The Allegheny County Black Activist/Organizer Collective and co-founder of Take Action Mon Valley, addresses the crowd gathered at the City-County Building in Downtown on June 15. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Activists have stressed the need for civilian oversight of local police, listing the creation of a countywide “independent, fully funded civilian review board” as one of 12 demands made to the city and county by The Allegheny County Black Activist/Organizer Collective on June 15, following ongoing protests of police brutality.

“We just don’t want another cookie-cutter board with the county… it has to be something that’s effective,” said Fawn Walker-Montgomery, a member of the collective and co-founder of Take Action Mon Valley [TAMV].

In pushing for oversight of more than 100 municipal police departments, she decries a lack of accountability for police shootings in the county’s suburbs. 

Will the ongoing civil rights movement birth a new chapter of civilian police oversight? If so, what will it look like? The next few months may provide answers.

Should Pittsburgh strengthen a 23-year-old board?

Established in 1997 following the death of Jonny Gammage at the hands of suburban police officers, CPRB has the power to investigate complaints of police misconduct, hold public hearings, subpoena documents and individuals and make recommendations to the police chief and the mayor. PublicSource’s Board Explorer tool includes information on the board and all of its current members.

CPRB’s recommendations are advisory. The board lacks the authority to issue binding disciplinary actions, and officers aren’t obligated in their contract to cooperate with CPRB.

On June 23, City Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess introduced an ordinance that, if passed, he said would put a referendum question on the November ballot intended to amend the city’s home rule charter to require officers to cooperate with CPRB investigations and require the police chief and mayor to review CPRB’s recommendations before making final decisions about discipline.

“The whole idea of this is to add more transparency” and accountability, Burgess said.

Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess during a February meeting of Pittsburgh City Council. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess during a February meeting of Pittsburgh City Council. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

Thomas Waters,  vice chair of CPRB, said he supports increasing CPRB’s strength but is hesitant about amending the home rule charter. “It looks like a step forward, however, there are things about how the legislation is written that are less clear, and potentially problematic” for the board’s independence, he wrote in an email to PublicSource. He declined to elaborate.

Board chair Emma Lucas-Darby said she thought Burgess’s bill was unnecessary, as she believes the board already works closely with the police chief and the city’s Office of Municipal Investigations [OMI], which also investigates complaints against police and other city employees. “Open communication already exists,” she said.

A public hearing on the bill will take place on July 8, after which it will go to city council and, subsequently, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto for approval. Peduto told the Post-Gazette that a referendum would not override the police union’s contract, which states that officers do not have to participate in the CPRB process. 

With more than 100 departments, can Allegheny County review police?

For nearly two years, Allegheny County Council has been weighing the creation of a countywide civilian police review board similar to the city’s board. The original bill, introduced by Democratic council members DeWitt Walton and Paul Klein in 2018, failed in a 9-6 vote in August 2019. It was reintroduced by Walton in January and is currently in committee. During the two June council meetings, Walton made motions to bring the legislation out of committee for a vote. Both times, the motions failed

“It is clear to me, that as Dr. King said, we’re experiencing ‘the fierce urgency of now,’” Walton told PublicSource. “The legislation is needed, and we as council should bring it to the floor and pass it.”

The county board would consist of nine members and, similar to Pittsburgh’s board, would review complaints and make recommendations to law enforcement. The Allegheny County Police Department would be subject to review immediately, but participation of municipal police departments — of which Allegheny County has more than 100 — would be on an opt-in basis. Walton said feedback from municipal departments has been mixed, with some departments supporting the board’s creation and others not.

TAMV and Allegheny County Councilwoman Olivia Bennett are holding a virtual event on establishing a countywide board at 6 p.m. on July 8.

In early June, state Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Allegheny, announced his plans to introduce a bill that would give almost all Pennsylvania counties the option of establishing a review board and make the process uniform throughout the state. “The whole purpose here is to encourage folks to have this conversation,” Fontana said. 

Participation of municipal police departments would also be optional; if participation was mandatory, it would be too difficult to get support for the bill, Fontana said. 

State Rep. Austin Davis, D-McKeesport, plans to introduce a similar bill this week, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

How effective are civilian review boards?

Between 1998 and 2017 — the most recent data available — CPRB reviewed 3,061 complaints. Of those, 99 went to the public hearing stage, another 1,073 were fully investigated but not taken to hearings, and the rest were dismissed, suspended, withdrawn or otherwise resolved.

Pittinger said she believes the low number of substantiated complaints is an indicator of improved policing, not ineffectiveness on the part of the board, though she noted that the board has recently faced increased resistance in obtaining records from the city.

The city did not respond to a request for comment.

Pittinger said that part of CPRB’s impact comes from making policy recommendations to the department. Officers know that CPRB is “looking over their shoulder,” which may help prevent misconduct at the outset, she added. “If we help prevent one lawsuit, then we’ve earned our keep.”

Elizabeth Pittinger is the executive director of the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board (CPRB), a group formed two years following the death of Jonny Gammage, Jr. at the hands of county police. (Photo by Maranie R. Staab/PublicSource)

Elizabeth Pittinger is the executive director of the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board [CPRB]. (Photo by Maranie R. Staab/PublicSource)

CPRB’s 2020 budget is nearly $659,000, with about three-quarters of it going to salaries for five paid employees. Since 2014, the city has settled or paid court judgments on 19 lawsuits alleging excessive force by police. The total $6.67 million payout was dominated by a $5.5 million settlement with Leon Ford Jr., who was shot in the chest at a traffic stop in 2012 and left paralyzed.

Quinn Cozzens, an attorney at the Abolitionist Law Center who researched CPRB in 2015, said the board’s inability to enforce its disciplinary recommendations makes it largely ineffective. He also said the police union’s pushback against CPRB has led to the board issuing softer recommendations. The recommendations can range from verbal warnings to an officer’s suspension or termination. “They’ve tried to legitimize themselves in the eyes of the police instead of in the eyes of the public who are calling for change,” he said.

Walker-Montgomery thinks the CPRB is falling short of its mission. “It’s not effective at all, actually, as far as taking complaints and making sure that the people are supported in that process,” she said.

Heath Grant, an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said CPRB’s 3% hearing rate, while low, is in line with models in other cities. He said the rates are generally low because police departments don’t prioritize participating in investigations and civilian investigators don’t ask the right questions because they often lack expertise — not because the police explicitly try to block investigations. 

According to Perez of NACOLE — of which CPRB is a member— there are roughly 160 oversight entities in the United States, each with their own model and level of effectiveness. A board’s recommendations can still have impact even if they aren’t carried out, Perez said, because they allow community members to hold the mayor and police chief accountable come election time. “That in and of itself is sometimes very powerful,” she said.

Experts told PublicSource that there’s no single best model for civilian review. Grant said boards are often ineffective, but the best are the ones that are the “least intrusive” to police departments, while still maintaining accountability. “If it’s an antagonistic relationship, [departments] can find ways to shut [investigations] down internally, and it just defeats the whole purpose of everything,” he said.

Maria Haberfeld, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that while oversight measures like citizen review boards can result in settlements and a feeling of redemption for victims of police wrongdoing, she doesn’t believe they are effective in changing individual officer behavior. “If somebody does not belong on the job, no level of accountability will stop him or her from doing the wrong thing,” she said. 

She said she believes a more effective reform measure is hiring a company with expertise in law enforcement oversight, like KPMG or RAND Corporation, to conduct an independent audit on a police department’s policies and practices. The audits can inspect a department’s training, use of force and more.

Can Pittsburgh’s board be truly independent?

Pittinger said CPRB has faced barriers in getting cooperation from the city's Office of Municipal Investigations, which also investigates complaints against police and other city employees. 

City code outlines a number of records the board is entitled to, including OMI reports, police personnel files and internal police reports. 

Pittinger said the board has recently faced increasing pushback from the city in regard to its record requests. “Things that were routinely provided upon the presentation of a subpoena, they’re pulling back on that now,” she said. 

Pittinger also expressed frustration about Pittsburgh City Council’s recent involvement in the board’s attempts to hire the private firm Densus Group. Council voted down the bill on June 30, following some concerns raised by residents  about the company’s practices and concerns from council members about the absence of a bidding process. The company would have consulted on the police department’s use of force following a June 1 protest in East Liberty, where police used tear gas against demonstrators. She said council’s involvement interferes with the board’s autonomy. “They don’t have the right to tell the board who their experts are going to be,” she said.

Taken together, these things threaten the independence of the board, Pittinger said. “All of a sudden,” she said, “we’re running into resistance.”

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

Mitra Nourbakhsh is an intern at PublicSource. She can be reached at mitra@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Emma Folts.

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