In 2010, CAPA High School student Jordan Miles was beaten during an altercation with three plainclothes "99-car" officers as he walked to his grandmother's house.
In 2011, 24-year-old Lawrence Jones was shot and killed after officers in a 99 unit stopped him for playing loud music in his car.
These incidents aren't the only issues with these Pittsburgh Police units. Known by their numeric designation, "99," the units feature plainclothes police officers patrolling in unmarked cars. They have also concerned community activists for several years.
Following the Miles incident, for example, the Citizen Police Review Board launched an investigation into 99 cars, and in December 2012, the board held a hearing on the subject.
At that hearing, Brandi Fisher, president of the Pittsburgh-based Alliance for Police Accountability, testified: "Being that the complaints you receive from ... the community are mostly because of the 99 cars, I think there needs to be something — some kind of way to gauge their effectiveness."
But despite regular controversy surrounding the program, to date there has been no overhaul of 99 cars, which are given more latitude to operate than other units.
According to information obtained by City Paper under the state's open-records law, there is no bureau-wide policy for 99 cars. Currently, five of Pittsburgh's six police zones have a 99 car. The scope and mission of the units varies from zone to zone, as do requirements and criteria for the officers selected for the detail. And without these guidelines, say law-enforcement experts and officials, more high-profile incidents are in the bureau's future.
"The problem with the 99-car tactic ... it is often used without appropriate forethought, it is not properly regulated or supervised, and the officers assigned are often not adequately trained in its proper application," says Pittsburgh-based attorney Timothy O'Brien, who has filed several civil lawsuits on behalf of clients who say officers in these units have violated their civil rights. "The unfortunate, predictable result from this stew of haphazard practices is far too often unnecessary injuries or even death inflicted upon innocent citizens."
However, changes could be in the works. The high-profile incidents involving 99 cars and conversations with the community have shaped how Pittsburgh's new Police Chief Cameron McLay plans to oversee the unit going forward.
"I came in with some real concerns about the 99 car," McLay says. Based on media reports, he said he was "picturing them functioning as a plainclothes jump-out squad. So I came in with the intention of reshaping that and being a little more dictatorial about how these cars are deployed."