On the same day Pittsburgh City Councilman Ricky Burgess introduced a raft of police reform legislation, city council unanimously approved his bill that will give voters an opportunity to weigh in on whether city police and employees should be required to live within city limits.
Mr. Burgess authored the bill to put a referendum on the ballot after Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1 challenged a requirement that police officers live within the city. City code dictates that all city employees are required to live within the city, but the referendum asks whether the requirement should also be written in the city's home rule charter.
The councilman strongly supports the requirement, saying that allowing officers to move outside the city will only strain community-police relations.
A change in state law late last year opened the door for the police union to challenge the residency requirement, but after months of negotiations with the city, the matter went to binding arbitration. After hearing testimony from both sides, a panel of three arbitrators will issue a ruling that's expected to come in the fall, before the Nov. 5 referendum.
It's unclear whether the referendum will supersede the arbitrator's ruling. Regardless, it's widely expected that either the city or the police union will appeal the arbitrator's decision to Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, where a judge will make the ultimate decision. Mr. Burgess believes that voters will side with him and that the referendum will give the city ammunition in its fight to defend the requirement.
"The judge will have a clear indication of the will of the city of Pittsburgh," he said. "I believe it will be persuasive."
At Tuesday's meeting, Mr. Burgess also introduced four bills meant to improve community relations with all city employees but with a particular emphasis on police.
The package of bills includes one to develop a smart phone application that would allow the public to evaluate their experiences with city employees, including police, and make the data available online. Mr. Burgess said it would provide transparency and instant feedback for city services, allowing for departments to make improvements, if need be.
"We have to provide, I believe, better customer service," he said.
But his actions were met with frustration and anger by police officials, who said they were not consulted about the legislation before it was introduced.
"I think that my biggest concern is that we have individuals promoting legislation and haven't taken the time to talk to us, to the police bureau, and that seems to be a pattern with some people in city council," said acting Chief Regina McDonald.
Sgt. Mike LaPorte, president of the police union, called the project a waste of time and money. When the public encounters the police -- because they've been pulled over or arrested or victimized in a crime -- the experience is inherently negative, he said, so the feedback would not be valuable.
"People don't like us. We tell them what to do," he said. "In a civilized society, that's how it works."
Chief McDonald said the technology would be redundant since citizens already have plenty of ways to give feedback on police, including reporting it to the Office of Municipal Investigations or the Citizen Police Review Board.
But Elizabeth Pittinger, head of the police review board, applauded the idea and said it could provide more transparency to the bureau.
Another bill would authorize $150,000 training through the Unleashing Respect Project, a program that encourages officers to "unconditionally respect" the public, even those who break the law.
Chief McDonald said she supported the training, but had already been exploring diversity training with officers that the city could get for free through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Mr. Burgess said community-police relations have reached a "crisis point." Several recent incidents have inflamed the public, including the arrest of a teacher outside of a community meeting in Homewood who claimed he was cuffed after he made a remark as an officer sped by.
Charges against the man, Dennis Henderson, were withdrawn by the district attorney's office.
A final bill would create an annual community-police relations summit put on by the Citizen Police Review Board.
Moriah Balingit: email@example.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. Liz Navratil: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil. First Published July 23, 2013 1:15 PM