Pittsburgh City Council to hear residents lay out police chief goals
A coalition of community groups headed by Tim Stevens, center, of the Black Political Empowerment Project and Vic Walczak, left, of the American Civil Liberties Union holds a news conference Wednesday. At right is city Councilman Ricky Burgess.
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Community groups say they see Pittsburgh's search for a new police chief as an opportunity for new leadership to bring changes: improving police-community relations, reducing abuse allegations and increasing minority hiring.
They and other members of the public will have the opportunity to make their feelings known Wednesday when city council holds a public hearing and a post-agenda meeting to discuss the qualities a new chief should have. At a public hearing, speakers are limited to three minutes, but a post-agenda meeting involves a more open discussion among council members and invited guests. The post-agenda meeting is scheduled for next Wednesday in council chambers.
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl asked for and received Nate Harper's resignation as chief last week in the midst of a federal investigation into the department's handling of money received from off-duty security details.
Council agreed to the meetings after a request from groups such as the NAACP, the ACLU, Black Political Empowerment Project, Action United and the Alliance for Police Accountability, which held a news conference at City Hall to discuss their concerns.
The groups say they don't want to pick the next chief but they want Mr. Ravenstahl and his challengers in the May primary election, Controller Michael Lamb and Councilman Bill Peduto, to hear their concerns and priorities. The mayor recommends a new chief to council for approval, which is almost always granted.
"We are committed to working with City Council, Pittsburgh stakeholders, police leadership and the public at large to identify the next chief of police," Ravenstahl spokeswoman Marissa Doyle said. "Their combined input will be critical as we work together to make this very important selection."
Councilman Ricky Burgess, who attended the news conference and has pushed for a series of police accountability measures and equipment, said improving the department's relationship with minority communities should be a priority for the new chief. He said he won't vote to approve a new chief unless the candidate is from outside the city.
"Our hope is that the new police chief would have a very serious and heartfelt commitment to police-community relations," Mr. Burgess said. "What is most important is how we can develop a philosophy where the community is engaging as actual partners."
Those relations have been strained since January 2010, when plain-clothes officers beat teenager Jordan Miles after he ran away from them. No criminal charges were filed, and Mr. Miles is pursuing a second civil trial after the first ended in a mistrial when jurors couldn't reach a unanimous verdict.
Witold "Vic" Walczak, state legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said what he sees as a lack of leadership has caused an increase in abuse allegations, an issue that led to a federal consent decree in 1998. The agency has a pending lawsuit over minority hiring, which has been less than 4 percent since 2002, he said, when it should be 20 to 26 percent.
Mr. Walczak said he wants an opportunity to work with a new chief rather than head back to court.
"This is a golden opportunity to avoid going back to court," he said. "This is the time to have this conversation."
Not everyone agreed. At Wednesday's council meeting, Councilman Patrick Dowd said a hearing on the qualities needed in a new chief should wait until the federal investigation has been completed and there is a better understanding of the problems in the police bureau.
First Published February 28, 2013 12:00 am