City Council told to tighten police accountability
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A group of community activists is asking Pittsburgh City Council to pass legislation to tighten police accountability, such as setting standards for when off-duty police may exercise their authority.
The proposal will be aired at a post-agenda meeting scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday and at a public hearing slated for 6 p.m. Feb. 15 at Shiloh Community Missionary Baptist Church in Homewood.
After the controversial arrest of teenager Jordan Miles on a Homewood street a year ago, Councilman Ricky Burgess introduced a series of bills designed to increase police accountability, such as mandating that audio and visual recording equipment be placed in all police cars.
Some of the bills passed, and Mr. Burgess has held others for additional review. Now, representatives of the Black Political Empowerment Project and other groups have asked Mr. Burgess for additional accountability measures.
Under their proposal, the city would specify "when officers are authorized to invoke their official powers" while off-duty. The question has generated attention in recent months as council settled a spate of police misconduct lawsuits, including a handful that stemmed from incidents involving off-duty officers.
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's office hasn't reviewed the proposed legislation yet. However, officials said they've taken a hard line against problem officers, only to be hamstrung by an arbitration process that often returns them to duty.
The proposed legislation would require the police bureau's annual report to provide new and expanded information, including the number of officers suspended with or without pay and demographic information about the officers who are disciplined. The report also would have to provide information about lawsuits filed against officers and data on traffic stops and strip searches.
The proposed legislation would require the bureau to spell out when, where and how strip-searches are to be conducted; require additional reporting of use-of-force incidents; and stipulate the conditions under which a suspect may be charged with aggravated assault on an officer.
Beth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board and one of those who has helped craft the proposal, said some of the provisions have been under discussion for years. She said some activists want the measures to recapture a level of monitoring lost when the U.S. Justice Department ended its oversight of the bureau in 2002.
She said the additional data collection makes sense to her.
"The officers are doing the work," she said. "Put it out there. Let people consume it."
David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh Law School professor who also has worked on the proposal, said the group's goal is not only to increase accountability. He said the legislation would help to increase public confidence in the bureau and create conditions where police and the public can work together.
"It's a very serious thing to have some significant segment of the public dissatisfied with their police department ... The worst thing we can do is pretend like there's no problem," said Mr. Harris, a frequent commentator on police practices and racial profiling.
Police union President Dan O'Hara hadn't reviewed the proposed legislation but said he would be concerned about efforts to specify when police officers are allowed to act off-duty. If officers observe a crime after a shift, he said, they'd have a difficult time following a directive to "call 911 and be a good witness."
"We make judgments based on our training and experience, and we act accordingly," he said.
Under the proposed legislation, an officer claiming to be a victim of an aggravated assault would have to get a supervisor's permission before personally charging a suspect with that offense. Ms. Pittinger said such a "check and balance" would be welcome, but Mr. O'Hara said supervisors already sign off on all charges that officers file.
First Published February 7, 2011 12:00 am