A convicted felon still on probation spent two days interviewing candidates for Pittsburgh's police force, a discovery that prompted city officials to halt a new plan to involve community members in the hiring process.
Dianne Malrey, 57, pleaded guilty last year to carrying a firearm without a license and was supposed to have been wearing an electronic monitoring anklet this week, when she questioned 17 applicants during the oral interview portion of the civil service exam. Pittsburgh police officers who arrested her in July 2009 wrote in a criminal complaint that she fired three shots at another woman outside a Hill District apartment while children were nearby. She told the officers, "I wasn't shooting at the kids, I was shooting at her," according to the complaint.
"We can't have someone evaluating a future officer when their character is in question," the city's Public Safety Director Michael Huss said Wednesday. "To restore the credibility of the process, this is what we thought we needed to do."
Interviews of prospective officers, suspended Wednesday after members of the police union raised concerns about Ms. Malrey and others administering the exam, will begin again today without the involvement of more than 30 community members who had been included in the process for the first time.
The decision outraged members of the black community, who said the civilians brought an important perspective to the process and were there as a way to repair the sometimes-tenuous relationship between police and the neighborhoods they serve.
"It's frustrating. This was an opportunity for us to get involved in the system and make it better," said the Rev. Chad Collins of Valley View Presbyterian Church in Garfield, one of the interviewers and Ms. Malrey's pastor.
Panels that had consisted of one civilian and three police officers will be limited to members of law enforcement for the hundreds of remaining interviews. Officials will remove civilian scores from the evaluations of about 200 applicants who were already interviewed, Mr. Huss said.
City leaders, including Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Police Chief Nate Harper, had hoped their input would help diversify a police department that is more than 82 percent white.
"Having civilian input into the process is good; it was a good idea," Mr. Huss said. "It's unfortunate we ended up where we are at."
Disheartened by his decision were members of the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network, who had urged the mayor's office to include civilians and supplied the police bureau with names of people they believed would be good picks -- mostly members of the group's 44 congregations and other organizations, such as the Black Political Empowerment Project. One needed only to be interested and trained to serve on the panels, said the Rev. John Welch, a former PIIN president who called the decision to eliminate community voices, "full of inequality and discrimination, quite frankly."
Community members were not informed that criminal history would be a problem, nor should it be, the pastor said.
"If they're good enough to sit in our churches and live by our rules, they are good enough to interview a future police officer," he said.
A disparate group of people were selected to participate, including prominent members of the clergy, such as the Rev. Glenn Grayson and his wife, Marsha, who have been vocal antiviolence advocates since their son, Jeron, was killed last year.
Mr. Huss, who refused to provide a list of the civilians who were selected to serve, said police conducted background checks on all of them, but he did not know what the checks entailed or when they were given. As for Ms. Malrey, who is a cousin of Assistant Police Chief Maurita Bryant, he added, "Why she slipped through the cracks, I don't know."
Chief Bryant, Chief Harper and police union President Dan O'Hara declined to comment on the situation Wednesday. Police spokeswoman Diane Richard referred questions to civil service officials.
Ms. Malrey, of Garfield, could not be reached. The Rev. Collins called her "a significant leader in our church" who "made a mistake a couple of years ago, and she's dealing with that."
She wanted to participate in the hiring process because she has children and grandchildren who live in the city, is well-respected in her neighborhood and "cares about the community," he said.
"She's not the problem," Rev. Welch added. "Because of [the city's] lack of clarity, we have 20 or 30 victims of the process instead of people who were willing participants to improving the system."
The oral portion of the exam follows a written test that 1,032 people passed last month. The police bureau builds its list of candidates based on those who score the highest on both portions of the exam, which carry equal weight.
City officials will reconsider ways to incorporate community members into the process before the next civil service exam is given in 18 months, Mr. Huss said.
But they might face skepticism, especially from the rank-and-file, after their initial efforts fizzled, said Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the city's Citizen Police Review Board, who supports civilian involvement. The inclusion of people with criminal pasts, she said, adds a detrimental bias, real or perceived.
"To not have protected the process in the beginning, I think that's tragic," Ms. Pittinger said. "It's a big embarrassment, and it's shameful."
Sadie Gurman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1878.