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Police accountability ought to be a key mayoral issue

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One of the ironies of the mayoral election is this: Some of the issues being discussed most are things the next mayor will control the least. And on issues where the mayor will have the final say, no one is saying much at all.   

Take, for example, the city's public safety sector, a key issue every election. The city's financial oversight board has taken a keen interest in how much police officers earn; they're suing to overturn a contract arbitrators awarded to police officers.

 

When it comes to how officers behave, however, we have less oversight than we did a year ago. Yet police accountability has been of much less interest in this election than it has been in prior years.

 

 In 1997, public outcries about police abuse led voters to create the seven-seat Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board. The board was to provide an independent review of alleged police misconduct, but it's been neglected since its creation.

 

Four of the board's seven seats are appointed by the mayor -- or not. According to Elizabeth Pittinger, the board's executive director, the mayoral-appointed seats have been vacant for about one meeting of every four since the board was created. "How can you just blow the people off?" she asks.

 

Until a few weeks ago, the people at least had another form of outside review: a Justice Department consent decree that monitored the police for potential civil-rights abuses. But in early April, the last portions of the decree were lifted. Justice Department officials credit the Murphy administration for carrying out its requirements. "There is no apparent room...for substantive improvements" in police operations, wrote auditor James Ginger.

 

Pittinger and other department critics disagree. The system doesn't apply the same scrutiny to police commanders that it does to officers on the beat, they say, and in recent years, alleged misconduct at the command level has cost the city millions of dollars in legal settlements. But no matter who wins May 17, a year from now the administrators Ginger praised will be out of office. And if there was room for improvement before, there's room for backsliding now. Many of the consent decree's reforms are unlikely to change, but Pittinger says, "There's nothing mandating any of those changes now. Everything could go back to the way it was."

 

Some of the old problems could be returning already.

 

In 1996, as complaints about police misconduct peaked, a City Controller audit suggested that "the upswing in citizen complaints...was caused, in part, by an influx of newly hired police officers." During the early 1990s, two-fifths of the force retired, replaced by younger, less experienced cops. Partly as a result, between 1990 and 1995, the number of complaints against officers nearly doubled.

 

That history may repeat itself. More than 100 police officers -- over a tenth of the force -- retired in 2004 alone. At the end of the year, the force was below 800 officers, the lowest number in living memory. Depending on the next contract, it may get lower still.

 

It's unlikely we'll see the rookie influx we had before, and even Pittinger thinks today's rookies will be better than those of the '90s. Among other things, she says, a college-credit requirement for new hires "helps incline new officers toward professionalism." But voters ought to ask where candidates stand on such requirements, she believes, and how much they support the review board.

 

Frontrunner Bob O'Connor's position has been, shall we say, nuanced. He opposed the review board throughout the 1990s, and an April 10 Post-Gazette story said he opposed it still. Three days later, however, a P-G "correction/clarification" explained that O'Connor said he "misspoke."

 

"He thought the reporter was talking about the consent decree," said spokesman Dick Skrinjar. O'Connor now supports civilian review, Skrinjar says.

 

This may be a flip-flop or -- given the $10,000 contribution O'Connor received from the police union -- a remarkably principled stand. Either way, O'Connor's probably glad that policing hasn't been a campaign issue this year. He tried to make it one in 2001, when he began his campaign by promising to fire the police chief. The wife of Chief Robert McNeilly Jr., herself a police commander, publicly warned that O'Connor's election would mean the "disintegration of the quality of police service."

 

Was she right? We're likely to find out next year. But it wouldn't hurt to start asking now.

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