Policing | BLOGH: City Paper's Blog |
Thursday, November 19, 2015

Posted By on Thu, Nov 19, 2015 at 1:42 PM

click to enlarge Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay - PHOTO COURTESY OF RYAN DETO
Photo courtesy of Ryan Deto
Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay
As a crowd of more than 1,000 sat watching in the Rodef Shalom temple in Oakland on the evening of Nov. 18, community leaders asked Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto if he would stand with their fights for better equality in the workforce, education and in the city’s race relations.

“Yes, of course,” he answered to the cheers of the crowd at the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN) annual meeting. The interfaith coalition works to bring together faith organizations and activists to act on regional issues of justice and fairness. Peduto was then given three minutes to address the crowd and he spent those precious 180 seconds attempting to rattle off as many of his initiatives that address equality issues as he could.

Some of the initiatives included: increase in police officers, more transparency in public schools, formation of the affordable housing task force and $15 minimum wage for city workers. There were dozens more listed by the mayor, and by the time he finished he was out of breath.

Before the mayor’s three-minute lightning round, faith leaders gathered and spoke about the problems facing Pittsburgh and how to address them.

“We are demanding the elimination of structural racism and economic inequality in the city of Pittsburgh,” said PIIN president Rev. Richard Freeman.

The meeting was part of a fundraising effort, and Freeman told the crowd that PIIN needs lawyers, legislators and researchers to work with them. Above all, they need money, around $30,000, according to Freeman, to pay for it all.

Speakers during the event also asked Pittsburgh Chief Cameron McLay how his department is working to increase safety for Pittsburghers, particularly by addressing relations between the city's primary white officers and black residents..

“We have been creating a strong process in the training of dispersed ethical measures,” said McLay. “And we are learning how to teach our officers about unconscious bias and procedural justice.”

McLay also says the police department has been using all community events as recruitment opportunities in order to increase the department’s diversity and he has created a position within the department whose sole job is to ensure accountability among officers.

Community leaders also asked about when body cameras would be installed on city officers, and McLay said that the state legislation has been introduced and the department is ready for training if the legislation gets approved.

Other Public officials in attendance of the meeting included Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh City Councilman Corey O’Connor, Allegheny County Councilwoman Heather Heidelbaugh, and Mayor Peduto’s chief of staff Kevin Acklin.

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Monday, November 16, 2015

Posted By on Mon, Nov 16, 2015 at 5:37 PM

Tomorrow, Pittsburgh City Councilor Daniel Lavelle will propose an ordinance to decriminalize marijuana. The measure was spurred by the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation and the Pittsburgh branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in an effort to reduce the negative effects of criminal charges for marijuana possession.

"I know it is a bill that is going to have a lot of controversy around it," says Aggie Brose of the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation  I do not want to see another generation of young people in the position that we're seeing these men in on our streets in. It's hard to get employed."

Brose said her organization has been working with NORML on the legislation for the past two years and were inspired by a similar law passed in Philadelphia. Since then, they've met with Lavelle who currently serves as council's public safety chair, District Attorney Stephen Zappala and Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay. 

"The reason it worked in Philadelphia is the district attorney [and] the chief of police all supported it, or else it will fail," says Brose. "Even though this might seem strange, we feel we're doing this for all the right reasons."

The new ordinance would cite and fine individuals up to $100 for possession of under 30 grams of marijuana or 8 grams of hashish. Brose says the current consequences for marijuana possession create unreasonable employment barriers that have had a negative impact on many neighborhoods.

"All these people have records now," says Brose. "They really don't have the knowledge or the money to know that after five years they could get it expunged."

See the full release after the jump:


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Friday, October 30, 2015

Posted By on Fri, Oct 30, 2015 at 12:50 PM

This week Pittsburgh City Council affirmatively recommended an agreement between the city's public safety department and Cover Your Assets Inc., a software company that helps manage secondary employment for police officers. The resolution would authorize the city to pay CYA $175,000 for another year of service beginning Nov. 1.

While council unanimously recommended the resolution, it did spark questions about secondary employment within the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. The bureau manages jobs police officers perform outside of their daily work such as providing security at construction sites, bars and restaurants.

"The money is only going to the scheduling of the officers, but nothing is allocated to any kind of specific or specialized training of the officer to perhaps understand how to do secondary detail in a nightlife district or to do secondary detail in a construction site," said Council President Bruce Kraus. "I'm not sure how officers are given the proper training and equipment to do the secondary detail jobs that we provide for them." 

Secondary employment has been subject to criticism over the years, most notably when it was involved in a 2013 FBI probe that looked into operations at the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. Critics have also claimed some officers were receiving preferential treatment by being given more off-duty employment opportunities than others.
 
"In our contract, officers have the right to secondary employment, but the department can define secondary employment so I'd like to have a better understanding of what secondary employment is defined as now and what it could possibly look like in the future," Kraus said. "We have a contract coming up, and what progress have we made to understanding what I believe to be a conflict of interest to have officers doing secondary detail at licensed establishments,be they alcohol gaming or adult entertainment?"

The new system with Cover Your Assets was put in place to address some of the prior criticism of secondary employment. But Councilor Dan Gilman said he's received complaints about the new system from community groups seeking to hire officers for their events.

"We had a number of incidents last year where no officers would show either because they hadn't signed up or got sick, or got held for overtime, all legitimate reasons. But then you're stuck, and it's five minutes before the event," said Gilman. "You don't have the safety you need for the public, and getting a hold of CYA was difficult."

These are issues the police bureau is working on, said Assistant Police Chief Thomas Stangrecki, who currently oversees the special events office in charge of secondary employment.

"There's a lot of work out there and needs for additional officers," Stangrecki said. "And a lot of times jobs aren't posted enough in advance for officers to look at them."

In 2013, after secondary employment received negative attention, administration of the special events office was changed. Stangrecki says officers who were handling secondary employment were transferred, and leadership was transferred to a supervisor who didn't have experience handling secondary employment.

"Regrettably there were some growing pains," Stangrecki said. "We've made a lot of progress along the way. The office is still changing, so we're constantly training new people. We're hoping to get some people who will be there for a while, to make sure details are filled and work through issues like whether to give a refund or not."

Kraus said he will arrange a briefing on the system and secondary employment prior to council's final vote on the resolution on Tuesday, Nov. 3.

"I fully recognize the need for a change from the past. It seems like this headed in the right direction. I also am very understanding that there are growing pains associated with it as new people learn new roles. But at $175,000, I also certainly expect a pretty good software package. That's more than many of the software packages in the city," Gilman said. "I'm certainly happy to support another year, but if this is the permanent solution, I'd like a more in-depth understanding. I think we share a common endgame, but I'm not 100 percent convinced that this is the best path to this end game."

As a supporter of secondary employment, Councilor Darlene Harris noted that the software system would not come at a cost to taxpayers because funding for the administration of off-duty jobs comes from fees billed to clients. For example, the city collects $4.38 per hour for every job and $25 per hour for police vehicle use.

"It's not coming out of taxpayer dollars anymore. It's coming from those who are utilizing our police force," said Harris. "I'm glad we got the program to the point where it's not costing tax payers anything and they are benefiting from it."

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Posted By on Thu, Aug 27, 2015 at 1:06 PM

Earlier this year, the United States Justice Department announced that Pittsburgh would be among six cities taking part in a pilot program aimed at reducing racial bias and improving police-community relations. Many have applauded the new program and efforts by Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay to rebuild community trust in the police force.

But Pittsburgh is in many ways still dealing with the remnants of past unresolved police brutality incidents. 
click to enlarge Jordan Miles - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL
Photo By Heather Mull
Jordan Miles
The city was reminded of these Tuesday when attorneys for Jordan Miles filed an appeal on his behalf. 

In March 2014, a jury ruled that three Pittsburgh police officers were not guilty of using excessive force in the January 2010 arrest of Miles that left him with bruises and broken bones. However, in a split verdict, the jury ruled that the officers were guilty of falsely arresting Miles.

"If we can't get justice for Jordan Miles then all these conversations about police brutality are just that," says Brandi Fisher, president of the Alliance for Police Accountability, who has worked with Miles and his family over the past five years. "If we can't get justice then Pittsburgh being a pilot city for community police relations is a farce."

Plans for the appeal filed yesterday began almost immediately after the verdict was reached. The appeal challenges the split verdict on the basis that if the officers falsely arrested Miles, any force involved in that arrest must be deemed excessive. 

"He was served a great injustice, and that never goes away. He never received justice. This should've never happened to him, and the people responsible need to be held responsible," says Fisher. "You can drive down the street and accidentally hit someone and kill them, and even though it's an accident, you're still held responsible."

The appeal is also based on the decision of the judge in the first trial to exclude evidence. After the verdict, Miles' attorney alleged that there was evidence to suggest that at least one of the officers in the incident held a serious racial animus.

"The officers are still working. Not one of them was reprimanded," says Fisher. "It's a classic case of police brutality. We are going to continue to advocate for Jordan Miles and his cause."


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Thursday, May 7, 2015

Posted By on Thu, May 7, 2015 at 3:24 PM

click to enlarge Protesters gathered outside the City-County Building this morning. - PHOTO BY ALEX ZIMMERMAN
Photo by Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered outside the City-County Building this morning.
City officials began their presentation this morning on what they believe to be a fair contract with the police union — and, as expected, their argument focused mostly on the city's financially distressed status and the need for long-term fiscal responsibility.

But before the city's lawyers began, about 14 protesters stood outside the City-County Building Downtown demanding a more transparent disciplinary process and a tougher Citizen Police Review Board, and that officers be required to live in the city (a requirement that's currently in litigation).

The protest, organized by We Change Pittsburgh, hit on issues that have so far been absent from the arbitration proceedings. "Police officers are given the authority to perpetrate violence, and therefore should be subject to more exacting public scrutiny," says Bret Grote, a 33-year-old protester, surrounded by chants of "from Baltimore to NYC, end police brutality!"

"[We're] protesting for discipline and accountability in these contract negotiations," adds Celeste Scott, one of the protest's organizers. 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ALEX ZIMMERMAN
Photo by Alex Zimmerman
In the past, the Peduto administration has indicated it is interested in a reformed disciplinary process as part of a new contract. City Solicitor Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge told City Paper that the city plans to make a presentation on disciplinary issues in the next few days of arbitration proceedings. 

But back up on the sixth floor, at least in the morning session, the administration's arguments focused mostly on debunking the FOP's claim that the arbitration panel could award a contract that is more favorable than what is allowed under laws that govern the city's financially distressed status. (Because, as the union argues, the city shouldn't be classified as distressed in the first place.)

"This isn't a trial on Act 47," the law that governs financially distressed municipalities, argued Gretchen Love, a private lawyer hired by the city to argue its case. The FOP "[doesn't] like the process. There was never an intention to work with the city."

Because contract negotiations between the city and union never resulted in an agreement, decisions about the contract go to binding arbitration, a process in which a three-member panel ultimately breaks the gridlock. Today marked the city's first day of arguments and expert testimony. The FOP made its case over the past month.

The city argued that 71 percent of its overall expenses come from wages and benefits, a number that will only rise. "It is increasing because of cost drivers like wages, health care, pensions and post-retirement health," Love says. "Any additional wage increase or benefit enhancement ... just exacerbates this problem."

As the city's presentation was underway, Mayor Bill Peduto chimed in with a statement of his own. "The only impact that these proceedings have relative to the City’s financial success is whether it assists the City in regaining its financial health, or whether it attempts to push the City back to the same place it was in 2004. It is that simple, and important," Peduto's statement reads in part.

"The City cannot tax its way to financial sustainability, sell more assets, further reduce services that are already cut to the bone, or keep ignoring investments in our infrastructure. If we did, the City we share would die."

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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Posted By on Wed, Apr 8, 2015 at 6:12 PM

click to enlarge Police union slide - PHOTO BY ALEX ZIMMERMAN
Photo by Alex Zimmerman
Police union slide
In a roughly four-hour opening presentation this afternoon, attorney Richard Poulson sketched the framework for what will be the police union's major argument in contract arbitration: that the city is more financially solvent than its "financially distressed" status makes it seem and can afford to pay officers more and increase other benefits.

"If you came down from Mars, you would have no idea this city is distressed," said Poulson, an attorney at Willig, Williams & Davidson and outside counsel for the union.

Poulson said the union would not put forward "a specific wage proposal" but was looking for "fair raises over the course of the contract that reflect the skill and risk involved in policing."

Negotiations between the police union and the city over the past several months have stalled. (This morning, for instance, the parties couldn't even agree where to hold the arbitration sessions.) And since public-safety unions aren't legally allowed to strike, a three-panel arbitration panel is charged with making a final decision on the contract when traditional negotiations don't yield a deal. The panel will hear 10 days of testimony: five from the union and five from the city — and for the first time, those proceedings are public and being held at Downtown's DoubleTree hotel.

Much of Poulson's opening argument hinged on an interpretation of Act 47, a state oversight program for financially distressed cities like Pittsburgh that, among other things, creates a financial-oversight mechanism that can dial back what municipalities spend in labor contracts.

At one point, Poulson said that Act 47 "is like crack for mayors," because of the limits it imposes, adding Mayor Bill Peduto "loves it."

A lawyer representing the city, in a formal objection to the focus of Poulson's overall presentation, said, "We're not here to put [the] Act 47 plan on trial."

The city's current Act 47 plan establishes a cap of a 7 percent raise over five years, Poulson said. But because of amendments to the law that allow for exceptions to the cap if it is "arbitrary, capricious and imposed in bad faith," Poulson said the panel could exceed that number.

Mayoral spokesman Tim McNulty says he will leave it to city lawyers to respond to claims made about Act 47, but characterized the union's testimony as "hyperbole and platitudes that were devoid of facts."

The city, he added, is "going to show that the city is progressing financially and isn't out of the woods yet."

The last police contract, which took effect in 2010, included a 9.5 percent salary increase over five years and a signing bonus of $2,000; the 2005 contract included a two-year wage freeze, but a 7.5 percent raise over five years, according to Poulson. The current base salary for a first-year officer is $42,548 (close to half of the nearly 900-member force earns at least $63,514, McNulty says).

Though the union isn't a seeking a specific percentage raise, it argues that a 40 percent salary increase would put city officers only in the middle of the pack among county police departments (though the union acknowledged that it is not likely to get an increase close to that number). The union reiterated its arguments that past salary increases aren't significant enough to retain officers, who often leave for higher-paying jobs outside the city.

"Morale in this department is in the basement," Paulson said. "This used to be the job. Today, it feels like the job of last resort."

The union's presentation will resume tomorrow at 9 a.m. at the DoubleTree.

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Posted By on Wed, Apr 8, 2015 at 11:15 AM

For readers eagerly awaiting news from contract arbitration between the city and police union — which is open to the media for the first time and will surely include titillating discussion of pensions and municipal budget priorities — you'll be glad to learn that discussion this morning focused on climate control, proper seating and brightness of the AV equipment.

In private negotiating sessions with a neutral arbitrator this morning, the police union successfully argued that the room's stuffiness and limited seating warranted a move to the DoubleTree Hotel. The blue plastic seating, joked FOP lawyer Bryan Campbell, looked like something you could buy at "Kmart for $10."

Police union president Howard McQuillan agreed that the room should match the professionalism of the presentation and said that the police union would pay for the accommodations. The neutral  arbitrator had previously ruled arbitration proceedings would happen on the sixth floor of the City-County building, but was apparently not interested in sweating it out, either.

For a peak at the non-temperature related issues under discussion in the police contract, check out our preview here. And for those of you following along at home, or are hoping the police union will also foot the bill for an open bar, the union's presentation is set to begin at the DoubleTree at 12:30 p.m.


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Thursday, April 2, 2015

Posted By on Thu, Apr 2, 2015 at 2:50 PM

After months of stalled contract negotiations, the union that represents city police officers announced this afternoon that it is inviting media organizations to attend arbitration hearings that are typically not open for to the public.

The announcement comes less than a week before city and union officials are set to appear before an arbitration panel, according to Howard McQuillan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, the union representing city officers.

The statement, released to City Paper minutes ago, reads in part: "Mayor Peduto has publicly suggested that the Act 111 arbitration process should be a transparent one. FOP Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1 supports the concept of open hearings, so we are notifying local media. We will not object to your presence during the hearings (we do not know whether the City will object). Our only request is that you not video or audio tape the actual hearings, but instead take written notes. FOP representatives will be available on site for comment before and after the hearings."

"The mayor says he wants a transparent process," McQuillan told City Paper. "We agree it's something the public should see from the beginning to the end."

Through a spokeswoman, the mayor released a statement which reads: "We welcome and encourage the media to attend all police union bargaining sessions, and we look forward to open and honest discussions for the betterment of our police officers and our entire city."

Since the police union is not legally allowed to strike, contract-negotiation deadlocks are resolved by a tripartite arbitration panel, with one representative each from the union and city — and one "neutral" arbitrator. That panel's final decisions are binding.

similar arbitration process can be initiated when the city and union disagree over discipline, but McQuillan says those shouldn't be public because they involve the disciplinary records of individual officers.

McQuillan says four negotiating sessions with the city haven't yielded an agreement and the first session in front of an arbitration panel is set for April 8. The police contract expired at the end of 2014.

The city did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the status of contract negotiations.

Members of the law-enforcement community differed on whether hearings in front of the arbitration panel should be open to public scrutiny. 

"I think the public has a right to know what’s being discussed," says Robert McNeilly, a former Pittsburgh police chief who was interviewed before the FOP's announcement this afternoon. "It’s in the citizen’s best interest. If a decision’s made and nobody ever knows what was discussed or why a decision was made — everybody’s in the dark.”

Sheldon Williams, an officer with city police until 2011 and current member of the Citizen Police Review Board, says  that "there needs to be some element of confidentiality there." He argues that for the neutral arbitrator to "make a fair decision," it makes sense not to have every step of the negotiating process aired publicly.

The police union's full statement here:

To Pittsburgh Local Media:

On behalf of Pittsburgh’s active and retired police officers, I would like to invite you to attend our upcoming Act 111 interest arbitration hearings between the City of Pittsburgh and FOP Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1. Those hearings will result in an interest arbitration award that will set the terms of a new Pittsburgh police CBA for the period beginning January 1, 2015.

The FOP’s presentation will take place on April 8, 9, 13, 14 and 23 at the Double Tree Hotel located at One Bigelow Square, Pittsburgh, PA 15219. Hearings are scheduled to begin at 10:00 a.m. each day.

Mayor Peduto has publicly suggested that the Act 111 arbitration process should be a transparent one. FOP Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1 supports the concept of open hearings, so we are notifying local media. We will not object to your presence during the hearings (we do not know whether the City will object). Our only request is that you not video or audio tape the actual hearings, but instead take written notes. FOP representatives will be available on site for comment before and after the hearings.

We look forward to including you in this process and hope to see you there.

 

                                                                                         Sincerely,

                                                                                         Howard D. McQuillan,

                                                                                         President FOP Fort Pitt Lodge#1


This post was updated on 4/2/15 at 4:15 p.m. to add a statement from Mayor Bill Peduto.

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Friday, March 27, 2015

Posted By on Fri, Mar 27, 2015 at 9:33 AM

After five months of gut-wrenching uncertainty, Pittsburgh police announced Thursday night that Andre Gray's body was found in the Ohio River in West Virginia. Police say 30-year-old Hubert Wingate "is a person of interest," and was already in the Allegheny County Jail for an unrelated warrant in connection with an assault in Colorado. 

Wingate's status as a person of interest was announced Friday afternoon as a correction to a Thursday-night press release that claimed he had been arrested. 

"Thank God for bringing my son home,” said Gray's mother, Victoria Gray-Tillman, according to a police press release. "Now I can begin my closure process. It’s been a long time coming … It’s a mother’s worse nightmare — their child being out there and it’s the not knowing. So I thank God for all the people, the family and the prayers.”

On Oct. 25, Gray-Tillman found her son's Lawrenceville apartment ransacked after he didn't return her phone calls. Inside, she found blood, bleach and duct tape, and noticed that his car and other items from the apartment were missing. (The car was later found, partially burned, on the North Side.)

Gray's body was found by West Virginia officials near a barge on March 20. They ruled his death a homicide caused by a gunshot wound, but it wasn't until March 25 that Gray was identified and Pittsburgh officials were notified of his death, according to a press release.

Gray, 34, was gay, out to his family and set to start a job at Project Silk — an organization that predominately serves young minorities in the LGBT community. "He was very much like a father figure to lot of people,” Nayck Feliz, a volunteer and former associate director of Silk told City Paper last month. "He wanted to help out even if he wasn’t paid." Gray's disappearance prompted some LGBT activists to help his family, including a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to encourage anyone with information to come forward.

It was not immediately clear what prompted Wingate's arrest or whether Gray knew him. When Wingate was arrested on the Colorado warrant, police found he had a concealed semi-automatic handgun.


Editor's note: This post originally cited a Pittsburgh police press release that stated Hubert Wingate was arrested. Police issued a correction Friday afternoon stating that he is a person of interest. 

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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Posted By on Wed, Mar 11, 2015 at 1:10 PM

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF HALLE STOCKTON/PUBLICSOURCE
Photo courtesy of Halle Stockton/PublicSource


A recent report by City Paper media partner PublicSource finds that Allegheny County police still keep paper records, despite being one of the largest local departments in Pennsylvania and having spent millions in improvements to the force — money that was also supposed to support a new records management system. The report finds that searching through and filing paper records saps detectives' and officers' time, which could be spent further pursuing cases or being out among communities.

Here's an excerpt of the report:

For the Allegheny County Police Department, searching for details on past crimes sometimes calls for cabinet duty.

That means a team of detectives literally thumbing through paper records in old-fashioned file cabinets.

That’s how police work was done before computers and before officers elsewhere could access databases from handheld devices.

But despite its status as the third-largest local department in the state, with about 200 officers, the Allegheny County Police Department is downright archaic compared to other law enforcement, even lagging behind police departments with as few as 18 officers.

“It’s very difficult,” Inspector Glenn Zilch told PublicSource, describing the hunt through paper records. “We end up literally putting five or six detectives on one file cabinet to start searching.”

The county police — responsible for patrolling the Pittsburgh International Airport, county parks and nursing homes, among other county facilities — rely heavily on paper files that are not easily searchable unless you know the case number or specific date.

They also lack a system that automates some aspects of report writing and data collection, and their officers are unable to file reports or issue citations from their vehicles, which would allow them to spend more time in the community.

Zilch, second in command for the Allegheny County police, said the department’s outdated methods complicate the job of investigating murders, assaults, thefts and burglaries, narcotics use and trafficking and other illegal activity. ...
Read the full story here.

CP and PublicSource have teamed up to investigate controversial police behavior. A timeline of police misconduct can be viewed here on the PublicSource website.

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