Peduto: Pittsburgh committed to fixing police problems

After he was elected last year, Mayor Bill Peduto said talks with the U.S. Attorney's Office "made it clear" that there were serious concerns about the Pittsburgh Police Bureau.

Election Day came less than a month after former Chief Nate Harper pleaded guilty to failing to file tax returns for four years and diverting more than $70,000 in public funds into an unauthorized credit union accounts, including nearly $32,000 he spent on himself, and two months before the release of a city-commissioned report that criticized the department's secondary employment policies.

"These are red flags that open up a lot of concern that, unless we are able to get those under control ourselves, could allow for federal agencies to come in," the mayor said Thursday in an interview. "I don't want federal agencies. I made this clear."

During interviews with news outlets last week, Mr. Peduto raised the specter of a new federal consent decree, under which the bureau operated from 1997 to 2005 after the Justice Department made allegations of a "pattern and practice" of police misconduct.

While he doesn't believe a new round of federal oversight is imminent, the mayor said he broached the topic to illustrate the pressing need for change in the department.

"There are some within the bureau itself who don't understand why we are trying to implement changes, why it's important," Mr. Peduto said.

Witold Walczak, legal director for the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a 1996 lawsuit against the police bureau and city that helped usher in the federal consent decree, said he has seen "substantial backsliding" in holding officers accountable for misconduct since the departure of former Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr. in 2006.

While some former police brass and city officials have blamed the arbitration system, a path the union can pursue to win fired officers their jobs back, for undermining discipline, Mr. Walczak said the more immediate concern is that the department is not taking enough initial action against wayward officers.

"The consent decree and our lawsuit were all designed to improve accountability systems," Mr. Walczak said. "There's plenty of cases where they don't impose discipline or it's just a slap on the wrist. ... They need to be more vigorous and aggressive and diligent about making sure the police officers don't break the law."

He noted that problem police officers constitute a very small percentage of the department.

"The vast majority of police officers are hardworking, diligent and doing a dangerous job," Mr. Walczak said. "You look at complaints and you see the same names over and over again."

The Pittsburgh Police Bureau's annual reports show that disciplinary actions declined over a three-year period even as the number of officers increased slightly. In 2010, when there were 864 sworn officers, the department initiated 60 disciplinary actions. In 2011, there were 870 sworn officers and 52 actions initiated. In 2012, the most recent report available, there were 873 officers and 49 disciplinary actions initiated.

After six months in office, it's time for Mr. Peduto's administration to start showing results, Mr. Walczak said. "I think they talk a good game and their hearts are in the right place, but we need to start seeing some action."

Mr. Peduto called those remarks "a great disappointment."

"We have been working with the ACLU on some of the lawsuits they had with the previous administration. We brought in a new head of the Office of Municipal Investigations. We took the Office of Municipal Investigations out of the police bureau and put it under the law department," he said. "We hired a former federal prosecutor to be the solicitor, and we went out and hired a new public safety director who is a former FBI top official. These are things they've been advocating for decades that we were able to do in five months."

The city is convening a series of public meetings this month to solicit community input on the next police chief, and Mr. Peduto maintained that he would not be pressured into making a hire.

"We won't have a new chief in place until after Labor Day. Our goal has always been that would be the last position we would hire, not the first," he said. "It needs somebody who can come in, be a disciplinarian but be fair. ... That is not a position that you rush to hire; that's the one that takes the greatest amount of time to do."

Mr. Peduto added that discipline and accountability will be "one of the big issues" that will be addressed as the city prepares to negotiate a new contract with the police union.

"It really is about getting the management of the bureau back to the brass and the city," he said.

The new chief and Mr. Peduto's other hires -- Deborah Walker, public safety director Stephen Bucar, and city solicitor Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge -- will all have a role in restoring confidence in a department that Mr. Peduto said suffers from a lack of morale and a "disconnect with the community."

In interviews at the end of last month, they all acknowledged the divide.

"I'm still evaluating what, if anything, I think needs to change," said Mr. Bucar, a former Pennsylvania state trooper and FBI special agent whom Mr. Peduto hired last month, pending city council approval. "Generally speaking, I want to do my best to bridge the gap between the community and the police department. There seems to be a communication gap that I want to work on improving, but beyond that, I'm not in a position yet to really know exactly what kind of changes I need to do to accomplish that."

Part of his job will be to bring in a leader with "unquestionable integrity and character" and a proven track record whose officers are willing to "go the extra mile" because of the respect the new chief instills, he said.

"If I were a member of the Pittsburgh police and my chief was indicted for violation of federal law, how would it affect me?" Mr. Bucar said. "I would be disappointed that a significant symbol of the department that I risk my life for had been tarnished. So part of my job, I believe, is to bring a leader into the department as new police chief who can help me restore that faith."

Ms. Sanchez-Ridge, who has been on the job since January, said one of her staff attorneys has been making the rounds at different police zones to educate officers about civil rights and employment law.

"The city has a lot of exposure when a 1983, which is a civil-rights violation, action is filed against the city. ... Once something happens, an incident has occurred, then we have to obviously defend it, but one of my major concerns is to prevent those things from happening. So I'm very interested in enhancing the relationship between the community and the police department," she said. "I see part of my job as protecting the city's coffers. So if we can avoid those kinds of lawsuits, then we're protecting the city's money."

Ms. Walker, a longtime campus police officer at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also worked in student affairs as a conduct officer, said she has increased OMI's presence at community meetings to give people a better understanding of its role in investigating allegations of misconduct by city employees, including police.

"They want to be heard. They want to know there is a process where they can file a complaint," she said. "One of the largest complaints we receive is officers not speaking to people appropriately or their attitude. I call it contempt of mouth: their attitude toward complainants."

She added that OMI is strictly a fact-finding agency, but she would like to see the office get the power to recommend disciplinary action.

"I think the community sometimes gets frustrated because if they feel there's wrongdoing ... that my office can ultimately terminate people, but that's not our role," she said. "Sometimes, the end result is not always termination. ... If we can get an employee to change their behavior, that's a win-win for everybody."

Officer Howard McQuillan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1, Pittsburgh's police union, doesn't see a problem with the city's disciplinary process.

"I don't feel there's an issue with the process we have," he said. "What I see is discrepancies in how it's used throughout the bureau."

He added that the arbitration process "goes both ways," with disciplinary actions reversed because the city didn't fully investigate the incident, failed to follow rules and procedures or presented a weak case.

Mr. Peduto's public comments about the department aren't helping build the relationship with the community the mayor says he wants, Officer McQuillan noted.

"The fact that he continues to label his police department as corrupt isn't helping the average officer in the street," he said. "I personally don't think he's talking about the majority of officers in the street, but it's basically using a broad brush to paint the department. ... He's the mayor, and it's his police department."

Robert Zullo: or 412-263-3909. Twitter: @rczullo.

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