The Citizen Police Review Board: Just the facts, man

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I'd tracked Sala Udin down because the Citizen Police Review Board is amid one its turf wars. The board wants police records as it looks into the mass arrests during last September's G-20 Summit, and the police department is saying nah-ah.

Thirteen years ago, Mr. Udin was the Hill District councilman who led the movement that created the Review Board -- and leaped to his feet and pumped his fist in the air when the vote came in 8-1.

That vote came only after two years of debate, a slew of public hearings, a voter referendum and a court challenge. So the board -- before it even existed -- survived tougher tests than the current to-do.


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Brian O'Neill's book, "The Paris of Appalachia: Pittsburgh in the Twenty-first Century," is available in the PG store.

This year's fracas includes Mayor Luke Ravenstahl replacing board members with some of his own people. Coming in the wake of the G-20 flap, the timing looks bad, but Mr. Udin isn't overly concerned with that.

The board's job was spelled out in the council bill, and it's going to come through this OK.

"It's unfortunate that the [board] vacancies kind of snuck up on council and the mayor was able to pre-empt some council prerogatives,'' Mr. Udin said, but the mayor packing the board with his people doesn't mean the board will stop being effective.

It's kind of like the Supreme Court. Board appointees don't always perform as one might predict beforehand. Mr. Udin didn't want to name names, but he has seen appointees who had been expected to be very conservative and pro-police come down on a complainant's side when the situation warranted it.

The police don't like the review board, and council itself has essentially asked the review board to chill. But Mr. Udin says the bureaucratic tussle serves only to take people's eyes off the city's bigger problems: homicides, narcotics and guns.

"The level of terror that's commonplace in some communities is unacceptable,'' he said. "Police and citizens have to find a way to work together.''

As much as police complain about a lack of cooperation from citizens when investigating crimes, particularly violent crimes, Mr. Udin believes there's more trust now than before there was a review board.

The same year the board was approved, the city entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department amid citizen charges of excessive force, false arrests and failure to discipline officers properly. The city came out of that five years later with both police disciplinary reports and serious crime down, and an independent auditor heaping praise on the department.

The consent decree and the review board have helped more people trust the system, Mr. Udin said. Police may see the board as "a toothless tiger,'' but they don't look forward to going before it and they don't want negative reports in their files.

"The community citywide knows if they feel abused they have somewhere to go.''

Likewise, he believes citizens more readily call police with crime tips than before because the level of trust has risen. That belief is more from what he hears than from data, but he'd like to see the Citizen Police Review Board do more data-driven work.

The police have been going backward in the hiring of African-Americans and women, Mr. Udin said, and he'd "like to see the review board stay on top of that and make that an issue.''

A spokesman for the mayor says minority recruitment is up and that blacks now hold more than third of police executive and management jobs, and that women hold half those jobs. But recent recruiting classes have been overwhelmingly white and male. Of the 152 officers hired the past three years, only 25 were women and only five were minorities.

That makes the force look less and less representative of a city that's only about 68 percent white. A 2007 report showed that only one in five Police Bureau jobs were held by minorities, down from one in four 10 years before, and that percentage has continued to shrink.

Let none of this suggest that Mr. Udin doesn't appreciate the difficult work of a police officer. He's never appreciated that more.

"It's a very, very, very stressful job,'' he said.

His own son, Salim Howze, 35, has been a police officer in Houston for a couple of years. That's all he wanted to be growing up, a policeman or a soldier, and he joined the force after being an Army MP.

I asked if this was the way the children of 1960s radicals rebelled against their parents. Mr. Udin smiled and said, "I wonder,'' adding that thinking about the work his son does daily "scares me to death.''


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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