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Make Pittsburgh police more accountableEdit

Original article was by BRENTIN MOCK in the City Paper in January, 2006

Let’s face it: When it comes to solving mysteries, the five staff members of Pittsburgh’s Citizen Police Review Board earn about as much respect as Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and Scooby-Doo. Perhaps that’s because the mysteries they are dealing with are so difficult to unravel that they may as well be chasing ghosts.

The review board was created to hold police accountable at a time when everyone -- from everyday citizens to the NAACP -- seemed to be filing complaints and even lawsuits over the behavior of Pittsburgh’s police department.

Attempts to create the review board were initially opposed by city councilors including Bob O’Connor, our new mayor. Yet in 1997, the CPRB was created in a political referendum that passed with 57 percent of the vote.

If Bob O’Connor wants to address some of the doubts about him today, he should lead the way in taking the board more seriously.

Getting a police officer to acknowledge wrongdoing in a public hearing is improbable if not impossible, a fact which has led some to charge the board has “no teeth.” Many people -- reporters, people running for office, the police themselves -- believe the CPRB has no subpoena power and can not compel cops to testify. This is why people assume CPRB members are denture candidates.

Whatever. Heavyweight champ Leon Spinks didn’t have any teeth, but he could still hit. Hard. So can the CPRB. Otherwise, former mayor Tom Murphy and his police chief, Robert McNeilly, wouldn’t have been so scared of it for years.

The review board can and has subpoenaed officers; and cops do show up to testify under oath at hearings, though they frequently plead the fifth.

What does stall the process is this: Complaints can’t move forward without being reviewed by the CPRB’s seven-member board, and there have been vacancies on the board almost since its beginning. One appointee, retired police commander Ronald Freeman, never showed in the two years he was on board. The mayor and city council are responsible for filling empty seats, but they’ve pussyfooted. CPRB executive director Elizabeth Pittinger reports that the seats Mayor Murphy was responsible for were empty almost 24 percent of the time; the seats council was responsible for were empty almost 12 percent of the time. It was just in the past few months that the board was brought up to a full roster after years of marked absenteeism, which often prevented it from hearing cases.

In order for the CPRB to do its job, and truly hold the police accountable to its citizens, the incoming mayor and new city council members cannot drag their feet on filling seats, allowing complaints to bottleneck and grow stale. O’Connor and council ought to amend the home-rule charter so there is a time limit on how long the mayor or city council may take to fill a vacancy.

There’s another problem still to be solved, however. Once the complaints have been heard, and an officer has been found guilty of misconduct, the fact remains that the CPRB’s recommendations for discipline can be ignored by the police chief and/or mayor. This alone is what downgrades the CPRB from bite to bark.

Without anything in place holding the police accountable to the CPRB’s rulings, the whole reason for the board -- creating public confidence that police misbehavior against citizens will be corrected -- is undermined. So O’Connor ought to take a second step: creating an ombudsman who will force the police chief to comply with CPRB’s sanctions.

In The Edge of the Knife, considered the definitive book on police conduct, Paul Chevigny writes that external entities, such as citizen-review boards, are weakened because they rouse police opposition. Internal investigative bodies, like Pittsburgh’s Office of Municipal Investigations, are weakened because they “become socialized to existing mores in the [police] department.” So, “Real accountability will have to combine internal and external controls,” adding an auditor or inspector general who is committed to reform.

For community activist Celeste Taylor, who fought for CPRB’s creation, the answer is money and jobs. “Have more jobs created for people in the police department, then the relationship between police and community would be better because we would be partners.”

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