City officials mum on police policy change calling for third-party review of excessive-force complaints | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

City officials mum on police policy change calling for third-party review of excessive-force complaints

"It certainly raises questions about their trust in the existing oversight structure of the police department."

When the city exonerated a Pittsburgh police officer after he struck and arrested a PrideFest attendee this past June, the city's top lawyer announced a significant shift in the way future excessive-force accusations will be investigated.

"While [the Office of Municipal Investigations] exonerated the officer in the case, it also obtained an independent third-party use-of-force review by an outside agency that arrived at the same conclusion," city solicitor Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge wrote in a Sept. 5 statement.

"It will be city policy from this point forward to seek third-party analysis in all excessive-force investigations, just as we did in this case."

But in the months since that change in policy was announced, the city has refused to explain even the most basic elements of its decision to hire outsiders to review excessive-force cases. It's a move that puzzles police experts and watchdogs, who say it's an uncommon policy.

"Experts can add value, but it's interesting that the city would make what seems like a pretty significant policy shift and not discuss the reasons for it or how it's going to work in every case," says Brian Buchner, president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. "It certainly raises questions about their trust in the existing oversight structure of the police department."

It is not clear who will conduct these outside reviews in the future, how those reviewers will be selected, where the funding will come from, or how their conclusions will be weighed against those of OMI, the city's internal investigative agency.

The city would not grant interviews with those presumably involved with or affected by the change, including city solicitor Sanchez-Ridge, OMI head Deborah Walker and acting police chief Cameron McLay.

But police expert and University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris says there are two likely reasons for the new policy.

There could be "lack of confidence in their own processes," Harris says. Or "they think the public does not have confidence in their processes" and want to use outside experts to validate the conclusions the city reaches.

"It can be a good thing, if the agency or entity being relied on is reliable and subject to certain kinds of standards accountable to the public," Harris says. But "it's hard to know just what role the city plans to have them play and how extensive that might be in any given case."

Tim McNulty, spokesperson for Mayor Bill Peduto, says the decision to hire outside agencies to review excessive-force cases doesn't mean the city distrusts OMI, which is responsible for investigating misconduct by city employees, including police officers. "This is just the next step in making OMI a completely independent and trustworthy source for investigations," McNulty says.

Asked what would happen if an outside agency reached a different conclusion than OMI about whether a police officer used excessive force, McNulty said the case "would be reviewed by supervisors." He did not elaborate.

When the city cleared Souroth Chatterji, the officer involved in the PrideFest incident, city officials refused to name the outside agency because they were treating it "like a witness," McNulty said at the time.

On Oct. 22, the city denied a request under the state right-to-know law to provide a copy of its contract with the "outside agency" that reviewed the PrideFest incident, writing that "the City is not required to create records which do not currently exist or maintain information in a form in which it does not currently exist."

But on Nov. 3, Pittsburgh City Council unanimously approved an agreement with Monaca-based CSI Corporate Security and Investigations, not to exceed $2,000, for "expert advice regarding appropriate police conduct."

As this issue went to press Nov. 10, the city provided a copy of an invoice from CSI as part of the original right-to-know request, which shows the firm billed $1,653 for services including video and document review and "analysis and preparation of reports" as part of a "Pittsburgh police review" of evidence from the "Pride Day Parade." The law department, without further explanation, did not release CSI's reports.

CSI did not respond to a request to comment for this story, but according to its website, the company does everything from investigative research and surveillance to executive protection.

Though its website does not appear to explicitly mention municipalities or law-enforcement agencies as clients, it says that the company's founder and CEO, Louis Gentile, worked for the state police for 17 years and has expertise in "use of force."

McNulty would not say how CSI was selected or precisely how they were involved in the PrideFest investigation. City Councilor Daniel Lavelle, chair of the Committee on Public Safety Services, and council President Bruce Kraus did not return requests for comment.

Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union legal director Vic Walczak says withholding key details won't help assuage the public.

"Unless they're willing to explain a whole lot more about this group, the relationship, the terms of the review, and then to discuss the results themselves, they're not going to get much PR benefit," he says.

Lamb says he couldn't recall other instances where the city paid an outside vendor to review an excessive-force case. He criticized the Peduto administration for its handling of the issue.

"To me, when we're spending public money, unless there's some overriding interest to keep something confidential," the information should be public, Lamb says. "I don't see any reason to keep this confidential.

"Saying the word ‘transparency' and acting as a transparent organization are very different things."

Also at issue is the role of the Citizen Police Review Board, an entity that is supposed to provide independent findings and recommend discipline when allegations of police misconduct surface.

"If you have a good, independent, thorough internal-affairs investigative system," Walczak says, "then you really don't need this. And in Pittsburgh, we've also got CPRB, which has been both underutilized and underappreciated."

The city often doesn't wait until the CPRB has issued its findings before deciding whether to exonerate an officer or settle on specific disciplinary measures.

CPRB executive director Beth Pittinger says it was initially "offensive to me that they would be looking for an outside investigation." She's since changed her mind.

"I think right now the administration has the challenge to demonstrate it's the best it can be when it comes to these kinds of reviews. They want to bolster their credibility."

Still, Pittinger is critical of the decision not to say more about who will be involved in the reviews. "That part of it is not an acceptable answer — it raises the whole specter of suspicion."

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