When it comes to disciplining rogue cops, who polices the police?

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A few weeks ago at the Mayor’s Police Zone 5 public safety council meeting in Larimer, several in attendance agreed that unless Pittsburgh’s next police chief has the authority to discipline officers—with penalties that can include suspension without pay and termination for serious offenses—the often mutually mistrustful relationship between the bureau and the Black community will remain unchanged.

At that meeting, city Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess said neither the chief nor the mayor could impose such discipline because a state collective bargaining law, Act 111 of 1968, forbids it. But it wasn’t strictly the legislation; it was the courts.

Act 111 was put in place to prevent police and fire personnel from going on strike when contract issues reached an impasse. It put binding arbitration in place to resolve such matters. In such instances both sides choose an arbitrator to act as a neutral third party.

Candidates, which may include lawyers, former union officials or people with technical expertise in a given business sector are chosen from a list supplied by the American Arbitration Association. Each side can cross off names it regards as hostile. The two sides then rank the remaining names and whoever has the highest combined rating handles the case.

Matters of discipline were not subject to arbitration until subsequent contractual language and court rulings made it so.

These culminated in a 1995 ruling by the state Supreme Court which said arbitrators rulings in disciplinary matters cannot be appealed to the judiciary—even when the arbitrator is grossly in error—unless he either exceeded his authority, acted outside his jurisdiction, violated someone’s constitutional rights, or was party to fraud or coercion. Barring those narrow limitations, arbitrators’ disciplinary rulings are as unbreakable as contractual findings.

Judge Ralph Cappy wrote in the decision that: “The legislature’s intent was to prevent Act 111 arbitration awards from miring down in litigation.”

That same year, the Pennsylvania State Police appealed to Commonwealth Court to overturn an arbitrator’s decision reinstating a fired trooper who, according to disciplinary records, was drunk when he jammed a loaded .40-caliber Beretta pistol into a woman’s mouth during an argument on a Pittsburgh street and shouted “I should blow your brains out.” In dismissing the appeal, (now President) Commonwealth Judge Dan Pellegrini said:

“Under the present state of the law, if (the trooper) had blown off the woman’s head, as he explicitly threatened to do with the gun in his hand, and the arbitrator had put him back on the job as a law enforcement officer, this court could do nothing. No one—not the governor, not the state police, not this court…has the power to change an arbitrator’s irrational award.”

So, when Common Pleas Judge Robert Colville refused to overturn the Arbitrator’s ruling that Pittsburgh police may live up to 25 miles away from the City-County Building, he was following “Pennsylvania State Police v. Pennsylvania State Troopers Association (Betancourt).”

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And though recent comments by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Public Safety Director Stephen Bucar indicate that they are aware of “bad apples” in the police bureau and would like to see them removed, neither they, nor the next chief, would have the disciplinary authority to do so without the possibility of an arbitrator overturning that decision.

The Courier requested the number of police disciplinary decisions reduced or reversed by arbitrators over the last two years from the city but did not receive them by press deadline.

However, the Bureau of Police 2013 Annual Report, released July 28, lists 52 disciplinary actions taken against officers last year. Of those, 23 were “dismissed/withdrawn.”

So, when it comes to discipline, arbitrators run the Pittsburgh police.

Several state legislators have tried to modify Act 111 directly, usually on behalf of municipalities that face having to enact large tax increases to pay police pension award rulings by arbitrators. None have yet succeeded.

The Courier asked Peduto and Burgess if they were working with state legislators on modifications that would either allow arbitrator’s disciplinary rulings to be appealed, or to make major disciplinary actions nonnegotiable. Peduto did not respond. Burgess, who is traveling, could not be reached by Courier deadline.

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

 

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