Smashing the State | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Smashing the State

Remember last September, when the G-20 came to town, and everyone was worried about living in a police state? Remember how most of our fears about anarchists proved groundless, and how glad we were when the barriers came down? Our buildings were more or less in one piece (minus a few windows), our government institutions still functioning. 

Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Because fearful politicians may do what window-smashing protesters couldn't: undermine the legitimacy of a local institution. 

Thanks to the G-20, the city's Citizens Police Review Board has been at the center of a crisis unlike anything in its decade-long history. The review board, which investigates claims of police misconduct, is trying to conduct a sweeping review of police actions during the global summit. City officials have been fighting its efforts, owing to numerous allegations of civil-rights violations by police. The ACLU has already filed a lawsuit based on complaints of police harassment against two protest groups.

Of course, the city faces legal threats every time someone complains of misconduct. At first blush, in fact, it ought to have even less reason for worrying about the danger this time. Ordinarily it pays for civil-rights lawsuits out of its own pocket. But in 2008, the city paid $3 million for a G-20 insurance policy to limit its liability.

Oddly enough, though, that policy seems to be making officials less secure. 

On June 14, the city solicitor's office met with members of Pittsburgh City Council, and made what one councilor calls "pretty forceful arguments about the city's legal exposure." At the heart of that concern, apparently, were fears that if one branch of the city -- the review board -- revealed findings that made it harder for the city to defend itself, the insurance policy could be null and void.

The very next day, with visions of million-dollar lawsuits dancing in their heads, council passed a resolution urging the review board to take it slow. The board should hold off seeking documents until they were turned over "in pending or to-be-filed federal or state lawsuits," the resolution said. Six councilors supported the resolution, which expressed a desire to "best preserve the rights of coverage [and] financial protection"; three abstained. No one opposed it.

Here's the funny part. The insurance policy itself is one of the documents that the review board is seeking, and that the city is refusing to turn over. And even when the city has turned over documents to the review board, they were so heavily blacked-out that the review board took the city back to court on June 18 -- despite council's resolution. Again, city lawyers hid their explanation of why they were hiding material. A city attorney refused even to explain why material had been censored, prompting Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. to ask, "Why would you redact something and then say you can't explain why it was redacted?"

We probably won't know for months. Wettick scheduled a further hearing on the matter for late August. There may not be a plaintiff by then. 

As the parties were squaring off in Wettick's courtroom, Ravenstahl announced plans to replace five of the board's seven members. Was the move punitive? Perish the thought: All the current board members' terms had expired, Ravenstahl pointed out. 

True enough, but such concern is conveniently timed. The mayor controls three appointees, two of whom were serving on terms that had expired two-and-a-half years ago. It's become standard operating procedure for Ravenstahl to leave board members in place indefinitely, serving expired terms. That allows him to remove appointees whenever he wants, ignoring term limits that protect appointees from political pressure. 

This time, he's gotten an assist from council, some of whose members -- those allied with Ravenstahl especially -- submitted their own nominations for the remaining four board posts. As this issue goes to press, it's not clear what impact that will have, since council submitted only a fraction of the names the city code seems to require.

But the pattern of fear-mongering is obvious. Before the G-20, we were told that those damn protesters would burn down our city. That fear proved empty, but now we're being told they could bankrupt it instead. Then and now, the scare tactics are in full force. Then and now, we're urged to put concern for civil rights on hold -- until a time better suited to the interests of the private sector and those in power. 

Where are those anarchists when you need them?

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