Community activists are reviving an effort to make laws out of police-accountability procedures once forced on the city by a 1997 federal agreement.
"What we're looking to do is [make] the work of 1997 not be in vain," said Tim Stevens of the Black Political Empowerment Project, speaking at an Oct. 21 Pittsburgh City Council hearing. "We don't want to depend on who the mayor is or who the police chief is or what their prejudices may be."
Established one police chief and two mayors ago, the federal consent decree was designed to improve the way the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police tracked officers' actions and the handling of public complaints. The move was prompted by a class-action suit alleging police brutality, but the city was released from federal oversight in 2002. Stevens and others, from the Black and White Reunion to the local NAACP and ACLU, opposed ending federal oversight in the first place -- and they've been pushing to enshrine the decree's provisions in city law ever since
"If professionalism is at a higher level and the issue of police-community relations becomes a top priority" for police and the city, Stevens added after the meeting, police "will be more comfortable going into the community and the community will receive them better. Many police officers do approach [people] in a professional manner. But some don't."
Neither Stevens nor Pamela Irwin, who testified for the local ACLU, could pinpoint exactly which of the consent decree's 67 instructions they hoped to codify into law. Beth Pittinger, head of the Citizen Police Review Board, was asked by Council President Doug Shields to make specific recommendations.
It was troublesome, Pittinger said, not to know whether police were still following specific changes instituted by the decree. "Now that [the decree] is gone," she said, "we have no way of evaluating the overall performance of the bureau" against the standards set a decade ago.
Some of the reforms are still in place. The Personnel Assessment and Reporting System (PAARS), which tracked each officer's traffic stops, searches, arrests and other duties, was instituted as part of the decree process to ferret out potentially aberrant behavior. It's still used today to compare officers to the performance of their peers.
"We do comparative studies to ensure that officers remain compliant with the laws and that the numbers are on-target within each control group," says Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson, replying via e-mail.
But the department has declined Pittinger's requests to turn over data -- even with officer's names removed. "Since this is an inter-departmental system, the information contained is not available to the public," Donaldson says.
That, says Pittinger, creates "a gap in public accountability." Kenneth Miller, of the Black and White Reunion, warned councilors that "We're counting down the clock to the next widely reported incident," such as the deaths of Jonny Gammage and Jerry Jackson. The deaths of those two black motorists resulted in charges against police officers, as well as damages to the city's reputation -- even though Gammage died in a struggle with suburban police.
Codifying the consent decree may avoid such future cases, Stevens believes, and may once again enhance the city's image. "Other police chiefs came into Pittsburgh to see" how the city improved police procedures under the consent decree, Stevens recalls. "It gave Pittsburgh another sort of reputation."
He hopes city council will schedule a longer hearing on the matter that "could allow more time for a more detailed presentation and hopefully solidify the need for this. We're trying to make sure this gets done this time." Sometimes people fight change by "hop[ing] you go away," Stevens adds. "And we have not."