Felon defends her role in police interviews

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A woman who was barred from interviewing prospective Pittsburgh police officers after the discovery of her felony record said she never expected her past would put an end to a new plan to involve community members in the hiring process.

In fact, Dianne Malrey said, she believed her years as a former drug counselor and her outreach work made her a good choice for the task. She volunteered and was selected, even though she pleaded guilty last year to carrying a firearm without a license. She remains on probation.

"I thought the interview process would give me insight into who was going to be on our streets and who was going to be protecting and serving us," Ms. Malrey, 57, said Thursday. "I did not go there to interfere with the police or anything else. I went there with an open mind and an open heart to try to help."

The city removed Ms. Malrey and dozens of other community members from the oral interview portion of the civil service exam on Tuesday, after officers saw her questioning candidates while wearing an electronic monitoring device on her ankle. Public Safety Director Michael Huss declined to comment Thursday but has said that police conducted background checks on community participants, and he was unsure why she "slipped through the cracks."

The interviews, which carry the same weight as a written portion of the exam administered last month, resumed Thursday without the involvement of civilians, which city leaders had hoped would improve flagging police-community relations.

The plan's failure has "really put a bad taste in people's mouths," said Ms. Malrey, who picked up an application to sit on the boards at a November meeting of the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network, the organization that urged Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's office to include civilians and supplied the police bureau with names of people it thought would fit the bill. She described the application as basic and said if she had known her record mattered she would not have signed up.

Upon her acceptance, she received a list of six conditions for being on the oral exams. None of the conditions mentions criminal background or a background check.

Members of PIIN, upset over the removal of civilians from the interviews, planned a news conference today to "question the mayor's breech of promise."

The group, which represents faith-based groups in the region, said it sent the mayor a letter demanding a meeting to "return citizens to this vital process needed to diversify the Pittsburgh bureau of police," according to a statement.

"They wanted people from all walks of life," said Ms. Malrey, who was arrested after she fired three shots at another woman in the Hill District in July 2009. She declined to discuss that incident but said, "You can't eliminate those who have a past. They are citizens, too."

Ms. Malrey is a cousin of Assistant Police Chief Maurita Bryant but said they never discussed her participation in the interviews.

"I would never have done anything to hurt her or anyone else on the force," she said.

When asked how the bureau administered background checks of the candidates, Chief Bryant said she could not comment because, "I was not involved in any phase of the process for selecting, organizing or coordinating the oral boards."

City council's public safety chairwoman, Theresa Kail-Smith, raised questions about the extent of the background checks and said she wanted to see a list of the names of those who were chosen. City officials have refused to make the list public.

"It raises a red flag to know that there was a relative of a Pittsburgh police officer with a criminal background on that board and yet clearances were required through the police department," Ms. Smith said. "It merits further review."

Still, she said, her focus was on finding new ways to incorporate civilians into the process when the next civil service exam is given in 18 months.

The involvement of community members in the hiring process can be beneficial, provided criteria exist for their selection, police union President Dan O'Hara said.

The opportunity to volunteer for the unpaid posts should be extended to a wider swath of the community, he added.

"I'm sure there's a couple of people who don't have felony records who would be willing to come here and do this," Officer O'Hara said.


Sadie Gurman: sgurman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878.


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