Local police mixed on idea of Allegheny County-wide review board

July 11, 2018

A proposal before Allegheny County Council on whether to establish a citizen’s police review board isn’t a bad thing but won’t necessarily help, according to several law enforcement officials.

County council is scheduled to vote tonight to start a series of public meetings to help members write an ordinance to create the board.

Calls for such a board have been renewed in the wake of the June 19 fatal shooting of unarmed teen Antwon Rose by East Pittsburgh officer Michael Rosfeld.

The Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board oversees police in that city, but no such body exists for county police or the other nearly 120 other municipal police departments within the county. District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. has raised concerns about the lack of policies and procedures in place at several municipal police departments, including East Pittsburgh.

East Pittsburgh Council President Dennis Simon declined to comment.

Cheswick police Chief Bob Scott, whose department serves nearly the same number of county residents as East Pittsburgh, said he welcomes any tool that allows the public to work with local police officers.

“I think, if the public has a question, we should be able to answer it for them,” Scott said. “I don’t have any problem with that - I know they do it in the bigger cities. I think it would be okay.”

In Penn Hills, the largest municipality in the county behind Pittsburgh, police Chief Howard Burton says such a review board may seem like a good idea after something like the Rose tragedy, but policies that apply county-wide will be difficult to draft considering the many differences between the various municipalities.

“I think what they really have to do is sit and decide what their purpose is,” he said. “What do they want to do? What are they going to investigate? Are they going to handle every complaint from every citizen fighting a parking ticket? They really have to define their goals.”

Creation of the board would not be immediate, but would come following a series of public meetings and drafting of an ordinance proposal. Even then, county council would not have the authority to force municipal departments to participate. According to council member Dewitt Walton, D-Hill District, communities would have to vote to allow board oversight.

“Ideally, with our provisions, I’d love to see every community be willing to opt in,” Walton said. “Whether they choose to, that’s an individual borough decision.”

Harrison police Chief Mike Klein said there already are many tools in place for police departments to make sure officers are held accountable for their actions.

“An investigation can begin internally, within the department, but then we have the option to move it and file a complaint with the Allegheny County District Attorney or the state Attorney General,” he said.

According to Klein, the difference between existing oversight and the proposal before the county is that existing agencies have the bite to go along with the bark.

“There are so many layers already in place that actually have authority that can make a recommendation and assessment that has teeth,” he said. “That board would just be creating another entity and another layer of government.”

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