Legislation born out of the Jordan Miles controversy could soon make it easier to police the police, revealing information about complaints of misconduct to the public. If passed, the bill would also require police to provide statistics concerning the race of people they arrest.
"It's about accountability and trust," says David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who has been working on the legislation. "If people are concerned about police conduct, there has to be real information put out by the police that explains what they're doing."
Last March, Pittsburgh City Councilor Rev. Ricky Burgess introduced a package of bills intended to promote police transparency and improve police-community relations. Those relations have been strained since the January arrest of Miles, a Homewood honor student who was allegedly beaten by three undercover police officers.
Some of those reforms were passed last summer, including a measure to mount cameras in police cars. And since then, activists and legal experts have been amending another Burgess proposal -- this one requiring the police chief to include information about complaints against police in his annual report.
The new proposal will be discussed at a special council meeting Feb. 10. Then at 6 p.m. on Feb. 15, there will be a public hearing at Homewood's Shiloh Community Missionary Baptist Church.
Currently, the police chief's annual report includes general information about the department as well as data regarding the number of crimes, broken down by offense and neighborhood.
According to a working draft of the bill obtained by City Paper, that report would also have to list arrest reports by race, age and gender. And it would include the number and disposition of citizen complaints filed against police officers.
Burgess did not return multiple calls for comment. But he has been working on the proposal with input from community members, including some who have butted heads with police. In addition to Harris, they include: Beth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizens Police Review Board; Vic Walczak, state legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union; and Tim Stevens, chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project.
"Our efforts are to ensure that the citizens have a clear picture of what is happening with the Pittsburgh police department," Stevens says.
Another measure added to the bill would require police brass to "prescribe the off-duty authority of Pittsburgh police officers." Such a policy would specify when police are "authorized to invoke their official powers and use of force ... when not on duty."
Concerns about off-duty police behavior have mounted in recent weeks. In January, city council had been asked to approve settlements in two lawsuits totaling nearly $200,000 -- both stemming from allegations of misconduct involving off-duty police.
The measure regarding officers' off-duty authority is going to be a "very controversial item," Pittinger predicts. "Police are going to be furious with it." Still, she says, "We should not be paying for officers who get into a scrap off-duty."
Joanna Doven, spokesperson for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, referred questions about the bill to the police bureau. Bureau spokesperson Diane Richard also declined comment. Daniel O'Hara, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, could not be reached for comment by press time.
City councilors mostly declined to discuss the bill before the new language is presented to council. Theresa Kail-Smith, who chairs council's public-safety committee, says that while she couldn't comment on the bill's specifics, she worries "it's another piece of paperwork for [police leadership] to complete."
Stevens says the only certainty is that debate will get heated.
"When dealing with issues [regarding] the police, you're automatically dealing with a sensitive area," he says. "But we hope that council will see the need for a bill that increases [police] accountability."
- Chris Young
- A police transparency bill introduced by City Councilor Ricky Burgess will be the focus of two public meetings.