Pittsburgh voted for police oversight. Now what?

Police oversight was on the ballot this Election Day.

In cities nationwide, voters backed measures meant to strengthen checks and balances after a summer of high-profile police killings and the massive protests that followed.

Here in Pittsburgh, a ballot question asked voters if they favored giving the city’s independent Citizen Police Review Board (CPRB) more power in investigating misconduct complaints against members of the city’s force. Voters said yes, they did — overwhelmingly so.

The ballot measure does three things, primarily:

  • It gives the CPRB the ability to conduct performance audits of the city’s police bureau
  • It protects CPRB members from being removed without just cause and without city council’s approval
  • Perhaps most importantly, it makes refusing to cooperate in CPRB probes a potentially fireable offense

So now what?

Some activists remain skeptical, partly because members of the seven-person board are not elected but rather appointed or confirmed by the office of the mayor, an office whose current occupant has been criticized extensively on this topic. Others argue that civilian review boards simply aren’t an effective substitute for more wholesale reform.

There’s also this: The city’s police union has vowed to challenge the board’s newly expanded powers, saying they violate the state’s Act 111 law. “The rules for police can only be changed through contract talks or arbitration,” said Robert Swartzwelder, president of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police union, per 90.5 WESA.

We reached out to union leadership yesterday and did not hear back.

But we did hear back from CPRB’s executive director, Beth Pittinger, and asked about FOP pushback, the next steps, what difference this ballot measure might make, and more. This is what she told us.

What’s next, now that the ballot measure has passed? 

Pittinger said city council will take up a process to amend city ordinance to reflect the expanded CPRB powers supported by 80 percent of city voters. It’s not clear when that process will begin.

Is a legal challenge expected? 

“We fully anticipate that there will be challenges,” Pittinger said of the FOP. “That’s the nature of this.”

She added: “I have not heard directly (from the FOP). Indirectly, I’ve heard they fully intend to take this to court and litigate it. That’s fine. We don’t shy away from that because our duty is to fulfill the will of the people and we will defend what the people chose to do with that ballot initiative.”

What about Act 111? 

“We have nothing to do with their collective bargaining agreement,” Pittinger said, “and we are an independent unit of government — we are not an office of the executive, we are not a mayoral office, we have nothing to do with that employer-employee relationship, so we can’t violate Act 111.” (Find more on Act 111 here.)

Should CPRB members be chosen by voters instead of the mayor? 

Pittinger said she worries electoral politics could undermine the board’s objectivity and, ultimately, its mission.

“It’s required to be impartial and they have to do their job to determine facts and make recommendations,” she added.

How will this ballot measure help CPRB? 

Pittinger said police cooperate with the CPRB when they are subpoenaed to testify at public hearings. PublicSource reported just three percent of the more than 3,000 complaints CPRB received between 1998 and 2017 resulted in such hearings — Pittinger said that’s because most were deemed unfounded. PublicSource also found that Pittsburgh’s police chiefs “fully rejected” many of the board’s recommendations during that time.

That said, Pittinger believes the ballot measure passed on this Election Day makes subpoena power less necessary because it gives the board new powers and new leverage. This includes the ability to recommend an officer’s termination if they refuse to cooperate in a probe — the final decision still rests with the chief of police.

“It’s not an option now, it’s an obligation,” Pittinger said. “You will participate (in CPRB investigations) and we fully expect that the Department of Public Safety, the Bureau of Police, and the officers will comply with that directive.”

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