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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Council unanimously backs police accountability bill

Posted By on Wed, Oct 5, 2011 at 5:16 PM

It took 568 days, numerous amendments and many heated debates, but city council finally gave its unanimous preliminary approval today to a controversial bill intended to increase police transparency and accountability.

"It was a fascinating journey," Tim Stevens, chair of the Black Political Empowerment Project, told council just minutes before the 9-0 vote in favor of the legislation. "We have an opportunity to build a new foundation of trust and cooperation" between the police and the community.

click to enlarge Public Safety Director Michael Huss (center), almost-but-not-quite singing "Kumbaya" with Brandi Fisher (left) and Tim Stevens (right). - PHOTO BY CHRIS YOUNG
  • Photo by Chris Young
  • Public Safety Director Michael Huss (center), almost-but-not-quite singing "Kumbaya" with Brandi Fisher (left) and Tim Stevens (right).

The bill, first introduced by Rev. Ricky Burgess in March 2010, finally earned council's support after 18 months of contentious debate between community members, council members, the Fraternal Order of Police, and police and administration officials. This summer, a consensus seemed unlikely, as arguments about the bill's contents prompted numerous vote postponements and criticism about some of the threatening rhetoric being used to denounce the legislation.

But private meetings convened in the last month helped reach compromise on the long-debated bill. Despite beginning negotiations at odds with one another, all of the parties involved in the executive-session meetings said they were able to work cooperatively to amend the legislation without watering it down.

"This is a really good day," said City Councilor Bruce Kraus, shortly before today's vote. "Everybody didn't get everything they wanted, but we certainly didn't compromise the bill."

The amended version of the bill, which is four pages long, looks similar to the 7-page version debated this summer. The legislation mostly requires the Pittsburgh Police to add new information to its annual report to the public, providing such information as the number of officers disciplined, the number of officers sued and the number of officers who have been criminally charged.

But a few changes have been made.

One of the bill's earlier provisions stated that the director of public safety and the police chief "shall prescribe the on-duty and off-duty conduct of Pittsburgh police officers," a response to growing complaints about some officers accused of misbehaving while off the clock. That part of the bill has been removed. Instead, the new legislation's preamble states that the city has the "right to hold the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police accountable at all times."

Also amended from the previous version: sections referring to use of force and strip searches. The earlier bill stated that the police chief should "require all officers ... to complete a written report each time an officer excercises a use of force; performs a body cavity search or strip search; conducts any warrantless seizure of property; makes a traffic stop; or makes a pedestrian stop that includes a field interview or a stop and frisk."

The latest bill passed by council today does not explicitly state those provisions. However, it states instead that the police maintain the same procedures stipulated in the federal consent decree from 1997 to 2002. And under the terms of that decree, the city was required to "develop, and require all officers to complete, a written report each time a [city police] officer (a) exercises a use of force; (b) performs a warrantless search (excluding searches incident to arrests, frisks, and pat downs); (c) performs a body cavity search or strip search; and (d) conducts any warrantless seizure of property."

"A lot of the detail in the original [bill's] language is just part of the consent decree," Beth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board, told City Paper after the vote. The bill "is not at all" watered down, she added. "The intent of the original bill is fully met."

Public Safety Director Michael Huss told council before the vote that the meetings held in the last month had been "very positive" and "productive."

"We support [the bill]," he said. (In an interview with CP after the vote, he said "all of the concerns" he and other administration officials previously had with the legislation "have been addressed.")

Neither Police Chief Nate Harper nor members of the FOP attended today's vote.

The unanimous vote earned cheers from more than a dozen community members who urged council members during public comment to pass the legislation.

"I'm ecstatic," Brandi Fisher, chair of the Alliance for Police Accountability, said immediately following the vote.

"This is wonderful," added Pittinger. "It's a very, very positive outcome."

Stevens, too, praised today's action by council, saying that it "will benefit Pittsburgh for years to come." But, he cautioned as he left council chambers, "The implementation of this legislation is the next key step."

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