Oversight Oversights | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

News+Features » News

Oversight Oversights

The Citizen Police Review Board is in better shape than political candidates -- or the public -- understands

by

comment

 

 

 

It's a rainy evening outside City Council chambers, where the Citizen Police Review Board is gathered to hear cases on April 20. Three are scheduled; none is heard.

 

 

 

A panel of three board members has arrived to rule on complaints of police misconduct against citizens -- Beltzhoover activist Richard Carrington, Malik Bankston (executive director of Lincoln-Larimer's Kingsley Association social service center) and ex-Pittsburgh police officer John Bingler. But one case is suspended two weeks because the defendant, Pittsburgh police officer Faquar Holland, fails to appear; the other two are postponed because the complainants are no-shows.

 

Since the Citizen Police Review Board was created by voter referendum on May 20, 1997, public perception has been that it's been inoperable because police don't cooperate. Current mayoral and city council candidates appear to have the same misconceptions. Many say they'd strengthen CPRB by making police show up consistently or forcing them to testify.

According to Elizabeth Pittinger, CPRB's executive director, Holland's April 20 absence is the exception, not the rule, for most cops. The police have shown up for hearings every time, says Pittinger, since Oct. 17, 2001, when the county's Court of Common Pleas ruled against Officer John O'Rourke, who refused to be sworn in for a CPRB hearing: "Office[r] John O'Rourke shall appear at the public hearing on the date of its resumption, be sworn to tell the truth under oath, assume the witness stand and respond to questions on a question-by-question basis. Officer O'Rourke shall answer each question or if he refuses to answer any questions assert a valid legal basis for such refusal to answer the question. Failure to comply with this Order shall be punishable as a contempt on court."

 

Citizens who complain show up for hearings regularly as well, Pittinger says, although she is currently compiling official statistics. The first complainant on April 20 sent a doctor's excuse while the second complainant (the CPRB discovered) had a warrant for his arrest on another matter. That case was dismissed.

 

Holland's attorney, Brian Campbell, did make it to the April 20 hearing to explain Holland's absence. Campbell's secretary, he said, tried to reach Holland using a cell-phone number obtained by the city's police union, the Fraternal Order of Police. However, the phone was disconnected, Campbell said -- or his secretary mistakenly dialed the wrong number.

 

The prosecutor, James Harver, representing the complainant against Holland, made a motion to have the subpoena enforced by the courts. "It's not appropriate to consider this matter simply a mistake," said Harver. "If the officer has a reasonable explanation before a judge of the Court of Common Pleas then there could be a basis for no sanctions. ... I'm not looking for sanctions; I'm looking for attendance."

 

Campbell, who represents Pittsburgh police in almost all CPRB cases, countered by saying he would no longer accept police subpoenas if the CPRB involves the courts. CPRB's staff would then have to serve police officers their subpoenas directly. The panel's staff of six (Pittinger, plus two investigators, an intake coordinator, a secretary and a typist) is already spread thin from digging through hundreds of complaints a year. Last year they saw 489 complaints submitted for the board's consideration, for instance. As of March 22, the board has received 82 complaints this year.

 

"We're willing to do whatever it takes, as we have," responded Pittinger.

 

[[section break here]]

 

Pittsburgh Police Chief Robert McNeilly and outgoing Mayor Tom Murphy stymied early CPRB hearings by discouraging cops from participating. But since the 2001 O'Rourke decision, participation is no longer the issue, says Pittinger. The broader issue is restoring trust between police and citizens -- trust that was diminished following police misconduct allegations. Those allegations resulted in a 1996 U.S. Department of Justice-imposed consent decree, which provided oversight to changes in Pittsburgh policing practices, police training and internal investigations. The last portions of the decree were lifted this spring.

The CPRB was set up to restore citizen-police relationships. David Harris, a University of Toledo law professor who studied similar review boards across the nation, in his book Good Cops: The Case for Preventive Policing called Pittsburgh's "the complete civilian review package" because it has what other city's review boards envy: subpoena power, public hearings and the power to compel testimony under oath. These are all the things the police union hates about it and what many in the public (including  those on mayoral and city council ballots for the May 17 primary) don't know it has.

At public forums, candidates have been pelted with many questions about what they would do to maintain the CPRB and give it more teeth. Some questioners have been concerned that the Democrats' endorsed candidate, frontrunner Bob O'Connor, is also endorsed by, and supported with, $10,000 from the FOP.

"There was no trust" between the police and the CPRB, he told an April forum, saying that the review board was in "limbo."

Appearing on the same Democrat-endorsed slate is District 6 city council candidate Tonya Payne, running against incumbent Sala Udin, who helped establish the CPRB. She says she supports the CPRB, often adding that she's "unbought and unbossed," invoking the mantra of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress and the first black to run for president of the United States. However, like O'Connor, she's also endorsed by the FOP. And, like O'Connor, she's been vague about exactly how she would support the CPRB.

Their rivals have been more precise -- if also a bit misguided.

Mayoral candidates Michael Lamb and Bill Peduto both say they have plans to strengthen the CPRB. Lamb says the "problem is the police aren't participating at all and they don't have to testify."

Even the correct half of that statement is only half right. Not only do police participate but some do voluntarily, says Pittinger. Holland, for instance, has shown up in the past and cooperated with other CPRB investigations, she says.

Lamb is right, however, in saying that police "don't have to testify." Officers may invoke the Fifth Amendment when they feel an answer might incriminate them, a right everyone enjoys. And because the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court Garrity decision extends "the protection of the individual under the Fourteenth Amendment ... to all, whether they are policemen or other members of our body politic," the mayor can force police to answer CPRB questions while assuring them that the information in their testimony cannot be used in any future prosecution. Yet Murphy has not used the decision.

While O'Connor questions publicly if mayor-coerced testimony is legal, Garrity answered the question almost 30 years ago.

 

Lamb says he would make police talk, as does Peduto. Peduto, however, believes the CPRB "can't meet or doesn't meet because it doesn't have enough members to have quorum" for board meetings. (Hearings require only a three-member panel.) Actually, CPRB has been meeting with a quorum and hearing cases with five active board members since at least October of last year. It missed three monthly board meetings in 2004 for lack of a quorum.

 

Peduto is right, though, in saying that up to four seats were left empty at various times from 2002 to the present because of the mayor's and council's failure to fill them. Even now there are two vacancies on the CPRB.

 

Mayoral candidate Louis "Hop" Kendrick and District 6 city council candidate Mark Brentley Sr. both say they'd strongly support the CPRB, with Brentley saying he'd publicly denounce the mayor if he did not support CPRB. He believes the incumbent, Udin, hasn't done so. Udin, however, says he has "bumped heads" with Murphy plenty of times, both publicly and privately, over the CPRB and fights to keep CPRB fully funded when "enemies try to cut it from the budget."

 

Udin's sole Republican opponent, Alan Perry, seems the least informed about the CPRB. "There is no CPRB right now," he says, "or if there is I haven't heard of any cases brought to it."  

Add a comment