Community wages final battle for police accountability

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In the wake of the alleged beating of former CAPA High School student Jordan Miles by three police officers, community activists and concerned citizens sprang into action to ensure similar incidents wouldn’t occur again. After one year, several pieces of legislation, aimed at police accountability, have been passed by city council.

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CITY COUNCIL—Council President Darlene Harris and Rev. Ricky Burgess consider comments from the public. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

On Jan. 12 a public hearing was held for a final piece of legislation with the goal of improving relationships between the community and police force. If passed, the bill sponsored by District 9 Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess will amend the duties of the chief of police to enhance accountability and to publish an annual report of the force’s activities.

“When the police are out in the street, whose rules are they ruling by? We have to make sure they’re serving and protecting not serving and abusing. You’re the one who’s going to be able to give us the sense of security and safety as the city of Pittsburgh,” said Sarah Campbell, public safety committee chairperson of the Homewood Brushton Community Coalition. “Justice delayed is justice denied. I thank you Councilman Burgess for getting us on the right track.”

The bill will require the public release of data related to pedestrian and traffic stops, the reason for those stops and any incident where there is a use of force or strip search. Speakers said the information would allow the public to determine whether police officers are engaged in racial profiling and the use of excessive force against African-Americans.

“The community’s proposal promotes public disclosure of what is in effect the quantified results of police work and offers elements of protection for the city, the police, residents, and visitors to the city of Pittsburgh,” said Debra Walker, chairperson of the Citizen Police Review Board. “As a law enforcement professional by virtue of my 20 years as a police officer, it is my opinion that the information described for public disclosure in this proposal… will not impose a burden on officers because they are already reporting these activities and the data is currently collected by the Bureau of Police. “

District 2 Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith invited Dan O’Hara, president of the Fraternal Order of Police to address comments made at the hearing. O’Hara said data required in the bill is already collected by the department, but much of it is not released to the public in the bureau’s annual report.

“I think our challenges are much greater than this piece,” said Kail-Smith. “To pretend there are no issues in the department, to pretend there are no issues in the community is not the reality.”

In response to the public hearing, District 6 Councilman Daniel Lavelle has signed on to cosponsor the bill.

“I don’t think there’s any intent to paint the police force as racist,” Lavelle said. “It’s about building trust.”

Speakers at the public hearing included members of the Citizen Police Review Board, Black and White Reunion, the Alliance for Police Accountability and several law experts.

“It is, our sincere hope that each of you will seriously consider the testimony of the distinguished experts who you heard from today and that you can understand and see the reasonableness of each particular in the bill as it is written and proposed,” said Tim Stevens, chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project. “It is our hope that you also understand the passion and ongoing concern of the community representatives who spoke to you from their hearts this morning, for their feelings and their perspectives reflect that of many who did not have the special opportunity to speak directly to each of you.”

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