Peduto sells out
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City Councilman Bill Peduto graciously provided a reminder last week that a "reform politician" is, nonetheless, a politician.
Faced with a leaked report about a near-disaster when the city's police command system broke down during a standoff, details of which remained under lock and key for nearly four years, Mr. Peduto was outraged, not at the incompetence it detailed, but that the details got out.
The history is this:
On Feb. 20, 2002, city police converged on 7200 Hermitage St. in Homewood to arrest Cecil Brookins. Mr. Brookins grabbed a pistol, fled through a window, leapt onto a nearby roof and so began a day-long standoff.
Dom Costa, a police commander, was off-duty, but heard of the standoff, arrived on the scene and, according to the report, wrested control of the situation from RaShall Brackney, the commander on the scene.
The report suggests that Mr. Costa overstepped his own authority, tried to talk Mr. Brookins into surrendering and, ended the day with Mr. Brookins opening fire on him and another city police officer. Possibly the most interesting observation in the report is the fact that police overlooked the fact that one of their submachine guns had been left lying about. Officers later recounted that Mr. Brookins observed, "Wow, you got a lot of stuff here."
Luckily, Mr. Brookins did not make a run for that stuff. The internal report makes clear a desperate fugitive with a submachine gun is no recipe for happy endings.
In all, the report suggested a suspension for Mr. Costa, who instead left the force with a bullet still lodged in his head from that day. Some reforms apparently were suggested, though it's hard to know just how effectively they are being implemented. Police kept everything secret and so it remained until PG reporter Jon Silver revealed its details.
There is much to be outraged about here, but Mr. Peduto, who campaigned for mayor last year as the exemplar of progress and openness, is mostly outraged that people now know its details. Members of City Council gathered last week to confirm Mr. Costa as the city's new police chief. They had no questions to ask about the events on Hermitage Street, possibly because there is nothing else left to learn. Someone needs to begin asking questions not about how the report got out, but how and why a report that tells the public when something is amiss or running badly in the police force would be a secret document.
"It is wrong for somebody to illegally steal a report," Mr. Peduto said when I called to press him on this issue. As he sees it, someone might -- the word here is might -- have leaked a personnel report. Frankly, we can't tell just how to classify this report other than to say it sheds light on something wrong, making it more plausible that it will be set arights.
The investigation into the Hermitage Street standoff could have been done as a personnel report or as a public safety report. It was, in fact, done as a secret report and what seems to bother Mr. Peduto is that it got out.
"If we allow this to happen, it will happen continuously," Mr. Peduto said.
Uh, Bill, it should happen continuously. It is called public disclosure. It is called the public's need to know when things are not going well. It is based on a question as old as Plato: "Who Shall Guard the Guardians?"
Susan Malie, the city solicitor who succeeds a regime equally undistinguished in its grasp of the public's need to know how its city is run, split things both ways. It is clear, she told council, "there may be a breach of city of Pittsburgh policy," though this is not necessarily a crime. That is because city policy, when it comes to matters of policing, has become such a disreputable exercise in closed-circuitry that it is now possible to shoot two people to death and keep your name out of the news.
On May 5 of last year, a private security guard, hired to tamp down trouble at a problem bar in Lawrenceville, got caught up in a fracas. His pistol sent bullets through both an uninvolved bystander in a back room, and the owner who hired him. To date, his name remains secret.
Presumably, a grand jury is looking into the matter now, but we know this much: Until a few years ago, the Pittsburgh police, as did police forces in other city's worthy of major status, made their reports available. They are now kept from public inspection. As a result, reporters and the public are told to wait for a "news release" that might or might not answer all questions.
The carefully controlled police statements of the day of the standoff, praising heroism, then the subsequent teeth-pulling, promising a hard look, must be dispensed in equal doses if either is to have any benefit. Mr. Peduto's outrage is more than misplaced -- it is pious rubbish. After learning the real details of Feb. 20, 2002, sensible people can only wonder what else the police hold back from us and, for that matter, from rank-and-file officers. The real question Bill Peduto ought to be asking is why such a report needed to be secret, why so much else is kept locked in the dark as well.
First Published January 29, 2006 12:00 am