Pittsburgh council gives police review board a say in policy

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Pittsburgh's Citizen Police Review Board will now be able to weigh in on future changes to policies and procedures for the bureau of police, a process that often occurs without much public input.

City council Thursday unanimously passed a bill that would give the board, which is made up of civilians, a chance to review proposed amendments to policies. The recommendations would not be binding.

The policy manual for the police bureau is not public.

Acting police Chief Regina McDonald declined comment on the matter through her spokeswoman, Diane Richard.

Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the board, said the arrangement will allow the board members to serve as "the public witness for that part of the police operations ... so that what's being implemented is consistent with the contemporary values."

The legislation was sponsored by Councilman Ricky Burgess, who said it was part of his effort to increase transparency with the police bureau. But the bill, as he originally drafted it, would have gone much further, making public all policies and procedures, not merely having a civilian board review changes.

"I believe the best way to increase public safety is to increase community confidence," he said. "[The] police must be willing to be transparent enough for the community to hold them responsible."

He said he initiated the effort in the wake of the death of Ka'Sandra Wade, a 33-year-old mother. Wade dialed 911 on New Year's Eve, but the call was disconnected after an emergency operator heard a commotion. Officers responded to Wade's Larimer home but left after her boyfriend, Anthony L. Brown, 51, turned them away. Later during a standoff, Brown told police he killed her and suggested in a note that they could have saved her. Brown later committed suicide.

But Mr. Burgess said his original bill proved unworkable. A state law allows police departments to keep their policies and procedures confidential, Mr. Burgess said, and the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police was unwilling to publish its policy handbook voluntarily. Police cited concerns about endangering public safety, he said.

Mr. Burgess pointed out that several other major cities, including Chicago and Houston, publish their policies and procedures.

Nonetheless, Mr. Burgess said he's pleased with the compromise and that it adds a measure of transparency to the process, allowing the citizen review board members to serve as "watchdogs."

Council passed the bill passed unanimously with Mr. Burgess and Councilman Daniel Lavelle absent. Mr. Burgess was attending a meeting of the Pittsburgh Housing Authority, of which he is chairman.

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Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. First Published May 23, 2013 12:15 AM


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