Police accountability bill may come to a vote soon

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After several public hearings, revisions and objections, a package of bills first put forth by City Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess calling for greater police oversight and accountability may be on the agenda for the next standing committee meeting Oct. 5.

Burgess said multiple meetings have been held to allow for maximum input from various stakeholders, and to reach a consensus.

“I feel very confident that by Wednesday (Sept. 28), we’ll have something all of us support, which can then be submitted and approved,” he said. “I’m pleased that we’ve had this process with everyone working together because the best way to improve public safety is for the community to have confidence in the police.”

Burgess
REV. RICKY BURGESS

Should everything go as Burgess hopes, his legislation would be placed on the council agenda for a vote Oct. 11. More than a year after he first submitted his package to council following the arrest of Jordan Miles by three officers in Homewood.

The focus of Burgess’ legislation package is greater reporting of police abuses of power, including one piece calling for cameras to be placed in all police cars so all stops are recorded. It also called for more direct discipline of officers accused of abuse, the general goal being to better identify and, potentially, remove “bad” officers.

Though Councilman Bill Peduto has stated he will vote for the legislation, and it is also supported by co-sponsors R. Daniel Lavelle and Doug Shields, it is still unclear where the fifth vote needed for passage will come from.

Though police and union officials had no objection to much of Burgess’ package, attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police Bryan Campbell said they did object to some aspects of the reporting requirements, noting much of it is already done.

When the police department was monitored by a federal consent decree due to past incidents of police abuse, Campbell said, part of its requirement was that the department compile an annual report detailing every call officers responded to. The decree also required the Office of Municipal Investigation to detail every complaint against officers, its nature and disposition.

“They still do that,” said Campbell. “Calls are broken down into 88 neighborhoods, the total calls, their nature, the areas and the result. The OMI does the same thing with discipline, recording the date, the type of discipline, and the supervisor.”

But, noted Campbell, discipline is a personnel matter and as such, under an exception to the state’s sunshine law, is confidential, so officers’ names are not reported. Furthermore, discipline is one of the things covered in the terms of employment negotiated as part of the union’s contract with the city.

“If you read the city Home Rule Charter you’ll see it’s a ‘strong mayor’ system. Act 111 of 1968 gives us the right to collectively bargain—but only with the mayor,” said Campbell. “So our position is that if an entity like city council were to pass legislation on terms and conditions, of employment—and city permits that—that’s an unfair labor practice, and we could take it to the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board.”

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s office said, because there are so many variables, he cannot comment on the legislation until council actually passes something he can review.

As the Courier reported in November, the only circumstance where an officer would be summarily terminated is if he is convicted of a crime for which the penalty is more than one year in jail. In cases where no charges are filed, Campbell said, OMI determines discipline. For the first offense an officer gets counseling; second offense, an “oral” reprimand that stays on the record for one year; third offense, written reprimand that stays on the record two years; fourth offense, one-day suspension that stays on the record five years; fifth offense, three-days suspension, and finally a five-day suspension pending termination.

The union contends that any changes to these procedures would have to be collectively bargained ahead of the next five-year contract. The current contract runs through 2014.

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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