Spurred by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala’s lack of action in charging the three Pittsburgh officers accused of beating CAPA student Jordan Miles more than a year ago, District 10 County Councilman William Robinson has proposed legislating the creation of a countywide civilian review board.
But before he does that, he will introduce legislation May 15 to form a committee that will investigate the operation of the district attorney’s office, and look into a number of anonymous charges made against the office.
“I don’t usually deal with anonymous accusations, but my colleagues on council and I all received this information back in October when we were looking at bias in the Public Defender’s Office, and I have shared some of it with Mr. Zappala,” he said. “These accusations, and there are multiple charges, are very detailed.”
Robinson said, with respect to racial bias, one complaint noted the office has no history of hiring Black assistant district attorneys. Another charged that the panel set up to look at racial bias in the plea bargaining process was all-White.
“Under my authority as budget and finance chair I can investigate to see how money is spent and where, to see if the county is indeed getting what it pays for,” he said.
The legislation to create a countywide civilian police review panel, he said, will take a bit longer because he wants to “cross all the Ts.”
“Right now, there are approximately 119 police departments that do not have any civilian oversight when it comes to issues of excessive force,” said Robinson. “Police do a difficult and stressful job day in and day out. But we can’t be waiting for someone to get beaten or killed to let people know we will not tolerate police doing things that other’s would be jailed for. “
“This isn’t about Steve Zappala, though I think he’s been mostly reluctant to prosecute White officers who’ve killed or hurt African-Americans, it’s about future district attorneys,” he said. “Jordan Miles was beaten almost to a pulp. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a district attorney to prosecute in serious cases. All our citizens should be assured that they are protected.”
In response, Zappala’s office noted that it prosecuted both Pittsburgh Housing Authority Officer John Charmo and Pittsburgh police Officer Jeffery Cooperstein, who both shot unarmed African-Americans while on duty.
Robinson said he plans to craft the legislation to give it more teeth than the city’s review board has. He said he plans to discuss its structure with CPRB Executive Director Elizabeth Pittinger and will “be informed by the challenges it has faced.”
With respect to one issue, allowing police to offer evidence that could not be used against them later in a criminal proceeding, Robinson said while he generally opposes any such immunity, he would hope County Executive Rich Fitzgerald would be “more progressive and in-tune” than recent Pittsburgh Mayors.
“We want to make sure officers and citizens alike are protected,” he said. “But we give police the power to carry weapons and even take a life, so they must be held to a higher standard.”
The third prong of Robinson’s legislative initiative would mandate that the district attorney and president judge recuse themselves from cases involving police actions that result in a death. Such cases would be handled by an independent special prosecutor.
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