For much of its 17-year history, the Citizen Police Review Board has been the red-headed stepchild of city government. And despite new leadership in the mayor's office and on Pittsburgh City Council, that hasn't changed quite yet.
Mayor Bill Peduto and City Council President Bruce Kraus have not taken action on the board's three vacancies. As a result, when one current member was absent for the board's scheduled Feb. 25 meeting, the agency was unable to meet a quorum or conduct business.
But Elizabeth Pittinger, the board's longtime executive director, is unfazed. For one thing, she says, "We've been through this kind of neglect before and we're still here."
Elected officials have, in fact, routinely ignored the responsibility to appoint members to the CPRB. Since its inception, attendance records show, the seven-member review board has had at least one vacancy for roughly 40 percent of its meetings. The board has operated with as few as two members.
But with Peduto and Kraus in power, supporters of the board say it may finally be able to address criticisms from activists who say it's toothless ... and from union officials who say its public hearings are purely for show.
University of Pittsburgh law professor and law-enforcement expert David Harris, for one, says a sea change may be about to take place.
Former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's approach to the board was "hostile" and "sometimes ferocious," Harris says. Relations became especially strained following allegations of police misconduct during the G-20 economic summit, which Pittsburgh hosted in 2009.
But now, Harris says, "You've got people leading [city] agencies who understand what the CPRB is really about — and [who] understand what good it can do for the city."
The review board's creation was mandated by a public referendum in 1997. Former City Councilor Sala Udin, who authored the law that established the CPRB, says public support for the agency stemmed from poor community-police relations, stoked by the 1995 death of Jonny Gammage, a black motorist who died at the hands of suburban police inside city limits.
"Those were the things that were the impetus behind a civilian-controlled alternative," Udin says.
But since then, the review board has done little to assuage the concerns of activists like Brandi Fisher, the president of the Alliance for Police Accountability. In an interview before a March 8 rally for Leon Ford Jr., who was paralyzed from the waist down after being shot by police during a 2012 traffic stop gone awry, Fisher rattled off a list of alleged cases of police abuse.
Among them were former Pittsburgh CAPA high school student Jordan Miles, who was beaten in 2010 after police say they saw a bulge in his jacket they thought might be a gun, and Dennis Henderson, a teacher who was arrested outside a community meeting after commenting loudly on police officer Jonathan Gromek's driving.
"A lot of these situations escalate to a point they don't need to," Fisher says. "No doubt it happens more [to] African-American males. There's no way we can say these are isolated incidents."
Attorney Bryan Campbell, who frequently represents the Fraternal Order of Police in disciplinary matters, says Gromek was simply responding to a quickly escalating situation. (As for the Miles case, a federal civil lawsuit involving the incident is going to trial this week.) And the review board, Campbell argues, would be better served reviewing larger policy issues, rather than investigating specific allegations.
The review board's recommendations are non-binding. When taking disciplinary action, city officials take their cues from the Office of Municipal Investigations, which conducts internal reviews of police conduct, and often completes its investigations before the CPRB has a chance to weigh in.
"The Bureau of Police is only acting on what OMI does, not what the CPRB does" Campbell says.
At a Jan. 16 CPRB hearing on the Henderson incident, Campbell advised Gromek not to offer any testimony about the encounter. Although the CPRB has subpoena power, it can compel officers only to appear, not to testify. Still, Campbell says, police view the proceeding as "a public humiliation."
Campbell was visibly frustrated at the hearing, and complained that witnesses who testified "have no idea how officers are trained."
Despite the persistence of such tensions, supporters of the review board say a new mayoral administration is cause for hope.
Peduto's pick to be the city's top lawyer, Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge, represented the CPRB as its solicitor (her husband now holds that post). And his director of the Office of Municipal Investigations is headed by Deborah Walker, a former member of the review board itself.
Requests for comment from Walker and Sanchez-Ridge through mayoral spokesman Tim McNulty were not returned. But Pittinger is optimistic about the future: While she has a staff of five (including three investigators), she says the review board may be able to pool resources with OMI.
"We need access to many different types of documents that might be applicable to a case — and some of those might be gathered by OMI," agrees current review-board member Thomas Waters.
"In the past, OMI has sometimes seen us as not a partner," says Waters. "That perception will clearly be gone with the new appointment."
But the change won't come overnight. Review-board Chair Emma Lucas-Darby notified Peduto and Kraus of the three board vacancies in a Jan. 10 letter. (By law, the board is a mix of civilians and non-active law-enforcement professionals. Some are appointed by the mayor directly, and others are chosen from a list approved by council. Of the current vacancies, two must be council picks, while Peduto must choose a third with a law-enforcement background.)
The letter states that the vacancies must be filled by Feb. 9 to comply with deadlines spelled out in the city code. But at press time, neither council nor the mayor had put forward any names.
Mayoral spokesman McNulty said "there should be a name forwarded very soon," and among the board appointments the mayor is making, the "review board is one of the most important ones in the mix." Kraus did not return multiple requests for comment.
Brian Buchner, president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, said to some extent, vacancies are a consequence of a system that relies on political appointees.
"You can't completely remove politics from the system because there has to be some kind of political participation in the process," Buchner says.
For her part, Pittinger hopes a new board will help change the tone of public hearings — and that police may even participate, to explain police procedure. She imagines a "less accusatory" process that "gives people an opportunity to tell their story."
Still, she acknowledges, "We're feeling a little bit weird, because for the first time in 17 years, we have people in government who understand what we do."