Back in March, I wrote a story about the years of neglect foisted upon the Citizen Police Review Board, and the hopes some police accountability experts had that the Peduto administration might take civilian oversight of law enforcement more seriously than his predecessors.
And while it's probably still too early to tell exactly how seriously the CPRB will be taken by Peduto and the new yet-to-be-named permanent police chief, there's now at least one high-profile case in which the CPRB's recommendation to fire an officer who arrested a teacher outside a community meeting is being largely ignored by the city.
That case involves Dennis Henderson, who was arrested by Pittsburgh officer Jonathan Gromek outside a Community Empowerment Association meeting last summer. Henderson claims there was no apparent reason for his arrest other than commenting on Gromek's driving as he drove down the street in his cruiser, which led to a verbal confrontation that quickly escalated.
In November, based on findings from the city's Office of Municipal Investigations that Gromek had violated bureau policy, the city appeared to settle on a written reprimand as the appropriate punishment.
But the CPRB reached a very different conclusion, recommending instead that Gromek be suspended for five days pending termination for actions the review board deemed "egregious."
And while the CPRB's recommendations are not binding, the police chief or mayor are required by law to respond to the CPRB within 30 days and either accept the board's recommendations or explain why they shouldn't.
In this case, interim chief Regina McDonald didn't respond specifically to the CPRB's recommendations issued March 26 until July 8. And even though she agreed with the CPRB's finding that Gromek violated bureau policies on proper conduct and incompetency (though disagreed with their rationale without explanation), she wrote, "No action will be taken based on CPRB's findings and recommendations" beyond action the bureau has already taken based on OMI's investigation.
Asked why McDonald did not respond to the specific recommendations until over three months after she received them, police spokesperson Sonya Toler wrote, "OMI investigated and the police bureau took appropriate action." She did not elaborate. Officer Gromek is currently assigned to Zone 3.
Mayoral spokesperson Tim McNulty did not respond to an email asking how seriously the CPRB's recommendations should be taken or whether Peduto believes Gromek should continue to serve on the force.
CPRB executive director Beth Pittinger says she isn't surprised by the city's response.
"The acting chief of police is from the old school," Pittinger says, adding that the timing of CPRB investigations often comes well after the city has already made a recommendation for discipline, which happened in this case. "I think we are all anxious for a chief of police to take the reigns so we can get out of this holding pattern."
Jerome Jackson, a witness to the incident and executive director of Operation Better Block, said the rejection of civilian recommendations only worsens the community's perception of the police department.
"Unless the CPRB is taken seriously and its recommendations are taken seriously, what good is it?" he asks. "It doesn't help community-police relations."