Upon Further Review | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Upon Further Review

Upon Further Review
CPRB chair Marsha Hinton, left, and executive director Beth Pittinger

"Piece of junk!" Beth Pittinger hisses at her Hewlett-Packard computer through clenched teeth. 

Pittinger, the executive director of the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board, wants to download some of the board's reports, to demonstrate the embattled agency's good work. But her cranky machine -- resting on a stand beside her organized, but busy desk at the CPRB's Uptown offices -- is having none of it. She shakes the mouse. "The city techs have been up here several times, but it's never fixed. It never works right."

Pittsburghers have sometimes expressed similar misgivings about the review board itself. For years city officials, along with rank-and-file police, have groused that the board goes too far -- engaging in witch hunts that waste taxpayer money. Community activists, meanwhile, say it doesn't go far enough. 

"I believe in the idea of citizen review of the police department," says community activist Rashad Byrdsong, who runs Homewood's Community Empowerment Corporation. "But I don't believe they have been aggressive enough in pursuing instances of police misconduct, nor have they done enough to bring about meaningful policy changes within the department. ... We don't need more bureaucracy, we need results." 

"We can't please everybody," Pittinger says. "God knows the police -- although cooperation has gotten better -- would love for us to go away. We were pushed on them and they didn't appreciate that."

Some of the board's would-be supporters are disenchanted as well, she acknowledges. "Some people want us out there advocating for them against law enforcement, but that's not what we're here for."

Such complaints have new urgency these days. The review board leapt into action following massive arrests related to last year's G-20 summit. Its effort to investigate police procedure during the event has already led to a courtroom battle with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration. And before that issue was even resolved, the board took on the highly charged case of the Jan. 11 alleged beating by police of Jordan Miles, a Homewood high school student. 

But those actions may end up triggering a debate over the board's conduct. And there's new potential for a battle about whether we need a review board at all.


Upon Further Review
Rashad Byrdsong of the Homewood-based Community Empowerment Association

The review board was created by a public referendum in 1997, after Pittsburgh City Council rejected such a measure. Its seven members -- three appointed by the mayor, four by city council -- preside over an office that includes three investigators, and a budget of $482,765. 

Such agencies aren't unusual; there are about 115 nationwide, according to the National Association for Police Oversight of Law Enforcement. Many are born of the belief that the police cannot police themselves. Departments frequently have an internal-affairs department to look into allegations of misconduct -- in Pittsburgh, it's the Office of Municipal Investigations. But critics say such in-house monitors aren't sufficiently independent. 

Since Pittsburgh's board was established in 1998, it has received nearly 5,400 complaints. Most of these, though, are simply informal grievances. In just 789 cases has a citizen actually filled out a complaint form and a sworn statement affirming the allegations are true -- the steps necessary for the board to begin investigating.

Sworn complaints are investigated by the board's three investigators. If they think a claim has merit, the full board can hold public hearings, which officers and witnesses may be subpoenaed to attend. If the board upholds the complaint and finds that misconduct occurred, it can recommend discipline to the police chief, though the chief can disregard its advice.

Few of those 789 complaints have drawn as much attention as the case of Jordan Miles, an 18-year-old violist from CAPA High School who was beaten by police during a mid-January arrest in his Homewood neighborhood. Three undercover police officers say Miles was lurking around a house, and when confronted tried to run. Miles says he was just walking home, that officers never properly identified themselves, and in the ensuing altercation beat him, pulling some of his then-braided hair out of his head. 

On Jan. 26, friends and supporters of Miles marched to city council to register their outrage. Their next stop was that evening's review-board meeting.

"Most of the members sitting here feel just as much outrage at what has happened to this child," board chair Marsha Hinton assured them. "We will investigate."

By this point, the board was already seeking to review police procedures during the G-20 summit. A Sept. 25 protest at Oakland's Schenley Plaza led to the arrest of 200 people -- many of them students who say they were taken by surprise and given no way to avoid being caught in a police dragnet. The incident generated a handful of complaints, and in response the review board is conducting a full-bore investigation. It is seeking documents including a roster of all officers deployed in the city for the event, the chain of command, all G-20-related police training records, a summary of injuries reported by officers and crowd-control plans. 

That demand ended up in the courtroom of Judge Stanton Wettick, where city attorneys argued the board couldn't launch its own investigations, but only investigate citizen complaints. 

Alan Johnson, an outside attorney hired by the city, said in court that the review board is "authorized by charter, but it's not integral to the city. They weren't elected. We've acknowledged they have a role to play. What they're trying to do in this case is grab more and more power."

In a March 19 ruling, Wettick sided with the board, ordering the documents to be turned over. But the dispute, and the Miles controversy, has led city Councilor Theresa Kail-Smith to look into whether the review board is doing what it should. 

"Their job is to investigate the complaints that come before them -- not go out seeking documentation for their own investigations," says Kail-Smith, who chairs council's public-safety committee. "I have received several complaints about them from constituents. For example, in the Miles case, several members spoke out on the case, and I think that calls into question their independence."

Kail-Smith cites Hinton's statement of "outrage" as an example, though Hinton says there's nothing prejudicial about promising to look into a matter. "This is a very serious case that deserves a full investigation," Hinton says. 

Pittinger, too, has taken flak for remarks she made back in March 2009, after the shooting death of 33-year-old Nicholas Haniotokis by Pittsburgh police Sgt. Terrence Donnelly and state trooper Samuel Nassan.

Nassan was one of two troopers found negligent in civil court for fatally shooting Michael Ellerbe, an unarmed 12-year-old on Christmas Eve 2002, in Uniontown, Fayette County.

"I think it's outrageous" Pittinger said of Nassan's role in the 2009 shooting. "You've got a guy who's been involved in a negligent shooting in the past. Taxpayers have to cover and pay $12.5 million for his poor judgment, so right off the bat his judgment is suspect in this situation."

Pittinger got a lot of heat for the comment and was blasted by Eric Stoltenberg, a lawyer for the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association who called Pittinger's comments "ridiculous and irresponsible."

But even today, Pittinger says she has "no apologies or regrets for anything I have said. An incident like that absolutely requires a high-level of scrutiny and the public must be assured that we are ... looking into it."

Hinton allows that "I did not agree with the comments [Pittinger] made" about Hassan. "We're in a business of waiting until the investigation is complete before passing judgment."

Still, she says, "Beth is so knowledgeable and so passionate about what she does that I really do think she is good for this board."


Upon Further Review
Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Independent Media Center
Activist Noah Willumsen filed a CPRB complaint after his April 2007 arrest.

Despite suspicion in some quarters, Kail-Smith says she was not asked by either the administration or the Fraternal Order of Police to go after the board. "I went to them to get their sides," she says and that they have concerns that the board rushes to judgment. She says she has no interest in abolishing the board, but wants to review its mission, comparing its practices to those of boards across the country. 

Pittinger says she has spoken to Kail-Smith, and she and Hinton were scheduled to meet with her as this issue went to press. For her part, Pittinger says she plans to approach the proceeding with an open mind. "It's never a bad thing to have a public discussion about what, how and, most importantly, why we do what we do," Pittinger says. "Why we're here is because of what things were like around here 15 years ago."

Neither Dan O'Hara, the FOP's president, nor Bryan Campbell, its lawyer, responded to requests for comment. But the FOP's opposition to the board is no secret.

In 1997, the FOP filed a court challenge to prevent the referendum from appearing on the ballot. After voters approved it, police found another way to oppose the idea.

"We would subpoena officers and they just wouldn't show up," says Hinton. 

Many officers remained silent even when the courts have forced them to show up at hearings. In one notable 2008 incident, former police Sgt. Eugene Hlavac showed up to his hearing, but rather than answer questions played his iPod loud enough for everyone to hear. (Hlavac was later terminated after a domestic-violence accusation was lodged against him.)

Philip Eure, the president of the National Association of Civilian Oversight for Law Enforcement, says there's a simple way to test if civilian oversight is working. Just see how often the chief of police agrees with the board's finding of misconduct. 

In 2007, Pittinger told City Paper that the city has agreed with its findings 55 percent of the time. But those cases all involved situations where the board recommended counseling or retraining, rather than punishment. And Pittinger says almost all of those recommendations were supported by former police Chief Robert McNeilly, who left the job in 2005. 

As for situations in which the board has determined that an officer deserved suspension or other punishment? "I don't think they've ever agreed with our findings of misconduct," says Pittinger. 

The closest they came, Pittinger says, is with the case of the iPod-listening Hlavac, who was accused of roughing up some cyclists during a protest. The board recommended a four-day suspension for conduct unbecoming an officer, but Chief Nate Harper demurred, informing the board that Hlavac had already been subjected to disciplinary action. (Disciplinary measures are not spelled out for the public, in accordance with personnel-confidentiality rules.)  

In another instance, the board recommended termination of an officer. He took disability and retired, however, before the report was issued.

Eure says the disconnect between the department and review board should give the city pause. 

"If that's the case, Pittsburgh, you have a problem," says Eure. Agreement between police chief and reviewers on disciplinary action "should be pretty high, and it should never be below 50 percent." In Pittsburgh, say Pittinger, that number Is zero. 

"If the police chief is not accepting or fairly considering the board's recommendations, then that's an issue of leadership and someone in authority needs to get involved. Wow, that's a startlingly low number."

In fact, Kail-Smith isn't the only city councilor taking an interest in the board. Ricky Burgess, who represents Jordan Miles' neighborhood of Homewood, is proposing that the review board's powers be expanded. 

Burgess wants the CPRB to investigate every officer-involved incident that results in death or serious injury. He would also require the police chief to wait until the board finishes its work before handing out discipline to officers. 

Pittinger says that would be a big step forward. "In a lot of instances, [the police chief] already made his decision before he ever gets our information," she says. And that, she says, adds to community cynicism. 

Some critics of the department, she concedes, "don't feel they're getting what they paid for."


click to enlarge Upon Further Review
Charlie Deitch
The alleged beating of CAPA student Jordan Miles has brought the role of the CPRB back into the spotlight.

Count Noah Willumsen in that camp.

On April 3, 2007, Willumsen was protesting outside of a Marine recruiting center in Shadyside when officers were called. Willumsen decided to document the arrest of a juvenile protester by taking a cell-phone picture. At that time, Willumsen later claimed, police officer William Vollberg approached him, slapped his phone out of his hand, grabbed him by the throat and squeezed.

Willumsen filed a complaint with the CPRB. Misdemeanor charges against Willumsen were reduced to disorderly conduct, a summary offense. At the Sept. 25, 2007 hearing on the criminal charges, Vollberg was asked if he squeezed Willumsen's throat. He replied: "I don't believe I did, but even if I did, so what?" 

Willumsen's complaint remains open. Vollberg has since been promoted to sergeant.

Pittinger says Willumsen's case hasn't been closed partly because he hasn't returned phone calls to schedule future hearings. But Willumsen says he's not sure how much effort he should continue to put into the complaint -- especially since the police need not follow the board's disciplinary recommendation.

"I was told to make a complaint, and while I was hoping that something would happen, I didn't have the greatest expectations," he says. "As the CPRB process began, it all sort of became funny. The police obviously see it as a joke. Even if they showed up, the board would make a recommendation to the chief, which he would then ignore. You want to fight for your rights, but it shouldn't be this hard."

Willumsen probably isn't alone in those frustrations, though he's among a handful willing to talk about them. 

The review board's 789 sworn complaints are in line with those in some other cities. The review board of Oakland, Calif., for example, has had 506 complaints since 1999. San Diego County has had more than 1,500. But of those 789, Pittsburgh's review board has authorized only 80 public hearings. It's completed investigations in only 52 instances -- a rate of fewer than five a year. 

Pittinger says such numbers understate the board's impact. Sometimes a complaint not being carried all the way through is a sign of success, she says.

"There was one case where the officer was having a bad day at an accident scene and he said something [caustic] to a colleague that was overheard by the mother of the accident victim," Pittinger says. "We got them together and the officer didn't have any idea that he had been overheard, and when he found out he was devastated and apologized profusely to the mother. She was satisfied that he didn't mean anything personal. That's a win in my book."

The board has also held several special hearings and made recommendations regarding police policy. The board, for example, held a 2004 discussion on police use of Tasers. (The board ended up supported using the controversial stun-gun as long as the proper training and supervision is in place.) It's also looked into the feasibility and benefits of requiring officers to have at least 60 college-education credits. 

"This board is not sitting around doing nothing," Pittinger says.

In fact, while doubters like Willumsen may not believe it, Eure says Pittsburgh's review board is one of the stronger agencies in the country. 

The main reason for that is subpoena power. "Not a lot of boards have that," he says.

Pittinger also emphasizes that relations between the board and police have improved. For example, she says, the Office of Municipal Investigations, the city's internal-affairs office, has been more willing to share information.

However, review boards in other cities have more leverage. Take Washington, D.C.'s Office of Police Compliance, where Eure serves as president. If the office's hearing officer finds that police misconduct has occurred, the chief of police has no choice but to level punishment. 

"This type of power by a civilian-review agency is rare," Eure adds. "But it can be done. You need a city council that is willing to step In and say this board needs more power. They need more say in this process."

"We probably need to lobby Harrisburg to get this board more power than it has," says Hinton. "There's always talk about how it will be hard for us to get more power because the FOP, how powerful they are." Still, she adds, "This board is here today because of the power of the people, and they can't dispute that."


Billy Hileman knows firsthand what that power can accomplish. 

An activist who was front-and-center in the 1997 review-board battle, even he was surprised by the margin by which the referendum passed. 

"I'll remember that margin until the day I die," says Hileman, now a union rep with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. "It was 52 to 48 percent. It was amazing."

In 1993, 23-year-old Maneia Bey was shot 16 times, 14 times in the back by an officer during a pursuit Downtown. In November 1995, Jonny Gammage was killed inside city limits during a traffic stop by suburban police (who had followed him from nearby Brentwood).

"Starting with Maneia Bey, there was this series of incidents that caused people to say, 'Something is just not right here,'" says Hileman.

Dozens of community groups joined to form the Alliance for Progressive Action, the key group for organizing the campaign. 

Barney Oursler, one of the APA's organizers, says the review board passed because "people across this city had issues with the police and their general treatment of the community at large. So they took matters into their own hands and fought for this CPRB."

Asked if this is the board they envisioned when they began fighting for it in 1997, both Oursler and Hileman say it is. 

"What we wanted was to create a really strong entity for community oversight and I think for the most part, that's what we have," says Oursler. Still, he says, "What's been disappointing is that the administration in the past 12 years has opted not to give any sort of serious weight or response to their recommendations."

And for all his frustration, even Noah Willumsen says, "I wouldn't want to see [the review board] abolished without something else to take its place. Even if they're doing slightly better than nothing, at least it's keeping the issue of police accountability in the spotlight. That's something, right?"

But it's clearly less than he'd hoped for. In 1997, the review board was seen as the antidote to a lack of police accountability. Today, it's as likely to seem to some members of the community like a symptom of the problem it was meant to cure.

"Some days I just have to look at the situation like this: The cops are pissed off at us, the city [leadership] is pissed off at us, and at times, the community is pissed off at us," Pittinger explains. "We're right smack in the middle with everyone pissed off at us.

"If that's where we are, then I guess we're doing our job."

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