Beth Pittinger, the executive director of Pittsburgh's Citizens Police Review Board, says she has one hope for this year's mayoral election.
"What I hope is that we get a new mayor who first and foremost demonstrates a political will to support the work of the board," Pittinger says. "I think that sort of public endorsement is long overdue."
Support for the CPRB, which investigates claims of police misconduct, is just one public-safety issue facing the next mayor. In the past year, the department has seen Chief Nate Harper forced out and indicted for stealing public funds. There are concerns about "secondary employment" policies that allow police to provide security to bars and sports facilities while off-duty. And there have been a series of incidents in which officers — some with long histories of controversy — have been accused of using excessive force and violating police procedures.
"How the new mayor deals with the issues facing the police department will be crucial," says David Harris, a professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in issues of policing. Picking a new chief, he adds,"will be one of the signature moments of the new administration."
Polling data suggests the once-crowded field of mayoral candidates is becoming a two-man race between Pittsburgh City Councilor Bill Peduto and former state auditor general Jack Wagner. The field is rounded out by state Rep. Jake Wheatley and self-described community organizer A.J. Richardson.
When it comes to issues as sensitive as policing, candidates often hedge their bets, making differences hard to pin down. But the candidates do emphasize different priorities: Wagner, for example, has repeatedly said he hopes to hire the next chief from within the department, while Peduto, in calling for a nationwide search, has stated no preference about where the candidate comes from.
What are the candidates' other policing priorities?
While hiring the right police chief is important, Peduto says, "it's not as important as hiring their boss" — the public-safety director. Both Wagner and Wheatley have suggested that the position, currently held by Michael Huss, is a needless layer of bureaucracy, but Peduto says it is vital. "We need a professional running our emergency services, not a politician," he says. "You want someone with a deep understanding of law enforcement and security issues."
When it comes to selecting the chief of police, Peduto says he will conduct a national search to find the best candidate, though he says the new chief could come from within the Pittsburgh bureau.
"I think it's inherently unfair given the criticism that this department has come under to believe that there are only 100 people on this earth [the city's current police brass] that could be the new chief," Peduto says.
Peduto has said he favors "decentralizing" command decisions, giving more leeway to zone commanders to decide on tactics. At the same time, he'd use intelligence-based policing — also known as "cops on dots" — to station officers in high-crime areas, and make sure crime stats are instantly available to the community. Such data, he says, would make it easier to hold zone commanders accountable. He also wants to bar the practice of having lower-ranking officers "leapfrog" over superiors by getting promotions. Such promotions have led to claims of favoritism in the past.
Peduto says he would work to restore the trust in the police bureau, shoring up relations with the community at large, while also building confidence among rank-and-file officers. Morale, Peduto says, is currently "at the lowest levels."
The Citizens Police Review Board, he says, is a cornerstone for building greater transparency.
"I think the present administration has been hostile in dealing with the CPRB," Peduto says, pointing to practices like leaving openings on the board unfilled. "As the mayor, I will make sure that the CPRB has all the tools it needs."
Richardson, of Sheraden, says he's running for mayor specifically to deal with policing issues, particularly the issue of police brutality.
"Judging what took place on St. Patrick's Day weekend [when complaints about two officers providing security on the South Side generated headlines], police brutality in this city is not just an African-American issue, it faces all Americans," says Richardson. "It's an issue of hate that needs to be addressed in a swift and timely fashion.
"If you're going to be in a public office, then you have to be held accountable."
Richardson says he knows about accountability issues. He was arrested last week and charged with driving under the influence. Hours after telling reporters he was the victim of a "feeble attempt to discredit me," he announced that he would plead guilty to charges.
Richardson says he wants to see more officers patrolling on foot getting to know the community they are serving, and that he will open a satellite mayoral office in an inner-city neighborhood. Richardson also says he will institute "Project X," "a straight-up, hardcore war against drugs." The approach involves painting a large "X" on locations where drug crimes are being committed.
From the outset of his campaign, Wagner has said he'd prefer the city's next police chief to come from within the department. That preference help earned him the backing of the city's Fraternal Order of Police.
Days after the endorsement, Wagner told City Paper that while he may have to hire from outside the bureau, "It's my hope that the [right] individual is within the department. I'm a military veteran, a Marine Corps veteran," he says. "I understand the importance of leadership, and if at all possible, [if] you can find that qualified person within the bureau, I think it creates an esprit de corps within that organizational structure."
Wagner has directed much of his criticism at city officials for not monitoring the bureau more carefully. At an April 6 forum held by black community groups, he allowed that while "there's no doubt there have been serious problems within that department, there are also serious problems structurally with how the city functions." For example, Wagner says that the money police earned from off-duty security details should never have been handled within the bureau. "I can see that from 30,000 feet," he says. (Some money from so-called secondary details was allegedly redirected into non-official accounts at a police credit union. Federal officials have accused Harper of spending nearly half of it — more than $30,000 — on personal items.)
At a University of Pittsburgh forum last week, Wagner said that "If the need exists, I will have the chief of police report directly to the mayor," complaining that the current structure has too many levels of bureaucracy and "needs to change."
Wagner has also said he's displeased about reports of "the reassignment of officers from neighborhoods when there are special events like a Steelers game ... or certain duties in isolated areas of the city."
Asked about the CPRB at the April 6 forum, Wagner called it "a very important organization," but said little about his vision for it, discussing instead police-recruitment strategies.
Like Peduto, Wheatley says it's critical to have a national search to find the city's new top cop, though he also says the new chief could come from the department's ranks.
"You need a police chief ... who understands when to partner with communities ... and not one who believes in occupying" those neighborhoods, Wheatley said at the April 6 forum. Wheatley, too, says the new police chief will report directly to him and not to a public-safety director.
Wheatley says there must be more positive interactions between police and the public. "For a lot of people, the first time they see an officer is at a crime scene," he says. Wheatley says he favors forming Police Athletic Leagues where officers interact with the public to build strong relationships. Funding, he says, would have to come from public/private partnerships and not taxpayer dollars.
Wheatley also says there needs to be a clear path for promotion within the department based on "what you know and not who you know." In particular, he says, there should be more minority and female officers in command positions. At the Pitt debate, he worried that black officers "feel like they're under attack" for Harper's alleged misdeeds.
"These issues with police brutality and the incident with the former chief aren't things that cropped up overnight," Wheatley says. "They are institutional and structural issues."
When it comes to the CPRB, Wheatley says he favors a strong, independent citizen review. At the April 6 forum, he faulted police for appearing at review-board hearings and refusing to speak; he suggested that under his administration, "any officer would be forced to testify." Such an approach could run afoul of rules that protect public employees against self-incrimination during internal investigations. But Wheatley says that in establishing more police accountability, "We need to make it clear that it's not an us-versus-them situation."