Mayor replaces 5 of 7 Citizen Police Review Board members

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Rich Carrington jokes that he must have angered someone to have been re-nominated to Pittsburgh’s Citizen Police Review Board when five of his fellow members were not.

“My job is to make sure citizens are represented when it comes to these issues, not the council, not the mayor, but the citizens who can’t speak for themselves,” he said. “My responsibility is to deal with cases as they come before me and be fair to the citizens and the police.”

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OUTRAGE—Black Political Empowerment Project Director Tim Stevens questions the motives of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s replacing members of the Citizen Police Review Board at a June 22 meeting.

Carrington said criticizing the board because it has no disciplinary power is shortsighted.

“Have we accomplished much as a board? No, but we have fought every day,” he said. “We have subpoena power. We’ve made unprecedented strides. Sure the police don’t speak when we haul them in, and council tells us to shut up. But more authority isn’t gained three years from now without the work we’ve already done.”

The politics currently swirling around the board, he said, is for others to address.

On June 18, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl forwarded nominations for the board citing the expired terms of the current members. Three days later, council tentatively approved the changes pending confirmation. Interviews will likely take place over the next two weeks.

Gone are Malik Bankston, John Bilger, Erin Dalton, Dr. Mary Jo Guercio and board Chair Marsha Hinton. Deborah Walker was the only other member re-nominated. The new appointees are Rev. Eugene Downing of Shadyside, Donna Kramer of the North Side, Diana O’Brien Martini of Banksville, Leshonda Roberts and Deborah Whitfield, both of Sheraden.

Ravenstahl’s call for membership changes came just as former board members attended a Common Pleas Court hearing seeking contempt charges against Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper for failing to give the board documents relating to the police response to G-20 Summit protests last year.

Prior to that, city council members, led by President Darlene Harris, passed a resolution to limit the board’s ability to seek police documents that might expose the city and council to law suits.

Black Political Empowerment Project Director Tim Stevens, noted that even as he presented new names, Ravenstahl said the board wasn’t active enough.

“Not active enough? How much more active can you be than filing for this city’s chief of police to be found in contempt of court,” said Stevens. “The board was doing its job when it was told by city council to slow down in its pursuit of truth and justice. Potential liability would not even be an issue if police were being fully trained to not abuse the citizens of this city.”

Malik Bankston recalled that until he and Carrington joined the board, it hadn’t had a quorum for months because then Mayor Tom Murphy and council had failed to submit replacements for departed members.

He said he was concerned about that not happening again so he stayed on even after his term had expired twice. Even so, he finds the timing of this round of replacements disturbing.

“The timing doesn’t make, and to suggest that this board could have been any more active is a misread of its mandate and authority. The G-20 flap is a perfect example of that,” he said. “What’s worrisome is these are things we’ve recommended numerous times. Crowd control policy, use of force, and use of dogs—that’s what we’ve looked at in the past. These aren’t new activities. From a continuity standpoint, this timing is terrible”

Though it has been suggested that the new members were selected to vote out Executive Director Elizabeth Pittinger, Deborah Whitfield said she was out of town when Ravenstahl forward the nominees’ names, so she missed all the drama. She said no one has ever suggested trying to get rid of Pittinger, and she believes in the need for an independent review board.

“I believe the majority of people are good, but there are always bad apples in every walk of life. Not all police are guilty and neither are all citizens,” she said. “You need an impartial board judging each case on its merits. As long as the board does that it will function very well.”

Bankston said he doesn’t believe the new members would have such an agenda. Carrington agreed.

“Beth is in tune with the process and is smarter than some people think, and her sole concern is the continued functioning of the board,” he said. “If you look around the country, ours is one of the most powerful. We may not move fast enough for some, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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