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Allegheny County Council to get a second look at measure to form police review board

  • An-Li Herring/WESA
A bill that would have created a countywide police review board in Allegheny County was defeated in a 9-6 vote in August of 2019. Democratic councilor DeWitt Walton re-introduced the legislation Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020.

 An-Li Herring / WESA

A bill that would have created a countywide police review board in Allegheny County was defeated in a 9-6 vote in August of 2019. Democratic councilor DeWitt Walton re-introduced the legislation Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020.

(Pittsburgh) — As promised, Allegheny County Councilor DeWitt Walton re-introduced a measure Tuesday to create a countywide police review board. The legislation was among the first proposals council took up this year.

Council was also presented with two proposed voter referendum questions that would limit how long members could serve on county council while permitting them to seek other elected office.

Walton, a Democrat, noted that the police review board bill he submitted Tuesday mirrored the measure he originally proposed more than a year ago, during council’s last legislative session.

“The conditions haven’t changed. The challenges are no less. And the obligation of council is to provide equity and justice for all residents of the county,” Walton told his colleagues Tuesday.

Like the previous legislation, the new bill would empower the board to investigate complaints of officer misconduct. Walton first proposed the board after the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Antwon Rose in the borough of East Pittsburgh in June 2018. The shooting prompted calls for more oversight of local police forces, but council rejected Walton’s bill in a 9-6 vote last summer.

Walton said the measure has better chances this time, given the new composition of council following last year’s election. First-time Democratic councilors Liv Bennett and Tom Duerr, who unseated incumbents who opposed the board, vowed to support the legislation during their campaigns. Duerr, moreover, was the first councilor to co-sponsor Walton’s latest proposal.

Walton said co-sponsorship of his bill carries significant weight because he only allows councilors to become co-sponsors if they promise to “support the legislation as it’s written, without amendment.”

But Democrat Liv Bennett, who heads the committee that will review the bill and possibly make changes before it gets a final vote, disagreed with that approach. She said she has already met with councilors who opposed the board when it first came up for a vote, in an effort to understand how they would like the proposal to change.

“Most of them are in favor of police accountability and a police review board,” Bennett said. And she added that while she would prefer for the board to have more power than Walton’s bill provides, “I’m open to amendment. I’m open to discussion. I don’t believe any legislation can be passed without discussion. I don’t believe you can bully someone into supporting your legislation.”

One change Bennett would like to make to Walton’s proposal would be to give the board the authority to subpoena officers to appear at public hearings.

“To not have the weight to make [officers] actually come before us,” Bennett asked, “how are we ever going to hold anybody accountable?”

Walton argued that his bill would allow the board to ask the courts to issue subpoenas in cases that come before it. But Bennett said, “That’s still depending on a third party. I don’t know if that’s the design that people really want.”

Some councilors last year also expressed concern that the board would jeopardize the due-process rights of officers by not giving them the opportunity to cross-examine their accusers. But on Tuesday, Walton countered that such a guarantee was not appropriate for an “investigatory body” like the proposed board.

The board  would not be able to discipline officers. It would instead recommend disciplinary or legal action, with police chiefs and other law enforcement authorities making the final decision.

“So there is no need to cross-examine witnesses,” Walton said. “When you cross-examine witnesses is during a trial, during a judicial proceeding.”

In addition to investigating instances of alleged police misconduct, the board could research policies on police-community relations more broadly. Under state law, however, the county could only require its own police department to participate, meaning the Allegheny County Sheriff and municipal police departments would be left to opt in.

The proposal also gives local governments the option to limit their participation to board reviews of law-enforcement policies and practices.

Similar to the previous bill, the version introduced Tuesday calls for a nine-member board “reflecting Allegheny County’s diversity.” Two board members would have to have experience in law enforcement.

County councilors would select six board members, and the county executive would nominate the remaining three. All seats would be subject to approval by a council majority.

Also at Tuesday’s council meeting, Democratic councilor Nick Futules put forward legislation that would add two questions about county council governance to the November ballot.

One would allow councilors to seek other elected offices while still serving on council. Under the county’s home rule charter, council members are the only elected officials barred from running for another office without first resigning from their post.

The second question would ask voters to limit councilors to three terms on council. Currently, the county executive is the only elected county official who faces term limits, according to the proposal.

“Allowing the membership of the legislative branch of county government to remain stagnant over extended periods of time is both undesirable and contrary to the desire of the voters,” the proposal says, because such a policy threatens to limit or eliminate “diversity, participation, efficiency, vision and creativity in county government.”

Term limits, Futules acknowledged, are “obviously a little bit more controversial, I believe, for council members.”

But he said, the restriction would “kind of work hand-in-hand” with the proposal to let councilors seek other offices: “If we agree to a term limit, maybe the people would agree that we have to right to run for another office without having to resign.”

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