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Pittsburgh at risk of losing control of more than its police

When an arbitrator decided last week that Pittsburgh police no longer have to live within city limits, the uproar was predictable: We're giving our tax dollars — and the power to enforce our laws — to people who won't even live here?

Get used to it. Pittsburgh may have big-city problems with crime and policing, but it's the suburbs and small towns that are calling the shots.

We're not just talking about, say, the case of former Homewood student Jordan Miles, whose federal civil-rights case against Pittsburgh police is being heard by jurors drawn mostly from rural and suburban areas. (Except for a lone juror hailing from Mount Washington, the all-white jury comes from communities including North Huntingdon and Daisytown — places where blacks make up less than 5 percent of the population.) The residency decision could affect the entire city, including residents who've never gotten a parking ticket.

And it was driven by people with almost no connection to Pittsburgh at all.

Police labor disputes are heard by arbitration panels made up of three members: one chosen by the city, one by the union and an "impartial" arbitrator who usually casts the deciding vote. In this case, that was John M. Skonier of Norristown, just outside Philadelphia.

As Skonier's ruling noted, state law required Pittsburgh police to live in the city until the passage of Act 195 of 2012. Act 195 softened the requirement to say that Pittsburgh "may" require residency ... which Skonier interpreted to mean that, in fact, the city may not do so. Pittsburgh police, he ruled, could live up to 25 "air-miles" away, "air miles" being a useful measurement if you plan on parachuting in.

"We should get on a bus and go picket [Skonier's] house," complains state Sen. Jim Ferlo, a Lawrenceville Democrat.

That'd be a long ride, and you'd probably want to make some stops along the way.

As City Paper first noted last summer, Act 195 was originally sponsored by Senate Republicans who themselves hail from outside the city. Ferlo, like most Senate Democrats, voted for the bill, because he thought Act 195 "would be a matter of local decision-making" by elected officials.

But eventually, fears rose that the bill might have unintended consequences. On the floor of the state House, Democrats worried the measure, as written, might put the decision in the hands of "an unelected arbitrator," but Republicans refused to amend it. Republican whip Stan Saylor insisted that "[w]ith the support of the Fraternal Order of Police," Harrisburg should change the decades-old requirement "as soon as possible."

"This is an issue that's broader than residency," says Ferlo. After all, he notes, city voters favored the residency requirement by 4-to-1 margins in a referendum last year. "It's about democracy."

Ferlo thinks Mayor Bill Peduto should appeal Skonier's ruling in court; Peduto was mulling his options as this issue goes to press. But gun-control advocates are already warning about another GOP effort to disenfranchise city residents: House Bill 2011.

HB2011 would undermine any local gun ordinance, including a Pittsburgh law compelling gun owners to report when their firearms are lost or stolen. Of the bill's more than three dozen co-sponsors, all but four are Republicans, most of whom live far beyond the city limits. And the bill would allow their constituents — even the ones who aren't arbitrators — to interfere with Pittsburgh's law-and-order efforts.

Usually, courts require you to be harmed by a law before challenging it in court. But HB 2011 would let any Pennsylvanian "who may legally possess a firearm" sue to overturn the law, even if they lived in, say, Norristown. Under the bill, anyone could shape the law in Pittsburgh — without even spending the night here. Just like an arbitrator, or a Pittsburgh cop!

Shira Goodman, of gun-control advocacy group CeaseFire PA, says "We hope this is something legislators are just bringing up around primary time" to curry favor with gun-owners. "But we're concerned."   

And let's remember: Republicans ordinarily claim to hate government overreach and heavy-handed unions. These are the guys who are usually waving those "don't tread on me" flags.

But they're happy to step all over the residents of Pittsburgh, apparently. Especially when they're helping local cops walk away.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the independent arbitrator involved in the police residency ruling.

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