Thursday, April 8, 2010

"Jordan Miles" Bills Debated in Council

Three members of the Pittsburgh Police department, two representative of the African American community and the Executive Director and Board Chair of the Citizen Police Review Board gathered in Pittsburgh City Council chambers today to give their input on a package of bills that may be more controversial for its name than for its content. The package of bills introduced by Councilman Ricky Burgess has been titled the “Jordan Miles Public Safety Reform Agenda.” Miles was the teenager beaten by police January 12th because undercover officers thought he was carrying a gun. Councilman Patrick Dowd says the case is still being investigated by more than one entity and the matter has not been resolved, so he is not ready to put the name on the five pieces of legislation. Councilman Burgess says if it weren’t for the Miles incident the council would not be debating the bills. He says he has never said the officers were guilty or not guilty, “What I have said is that this incident allows us the opportunity to go beyond it and begin to heal the relationship. What
I want to do is to embark on a process, not a single piece of legislation or five pieces of legislation, but a process.” Burgess says the bills are all aimed at helping to build trust between police and the community. Dowd counters that there is nothing in the legislation that would have prevented the confrontation between police and Miles. The bills deal with getting the police department accredited, putting video cameras in police cars, placing officers on administrative leave, requiring yearly reports from the chief of police and forcing the Citizen Police Review Board to investigate any case where a suspect is seriously injured or killed.

Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper says the department is already 70% of the way to reaching all of the Pennsylvania Law Enforcement Accreditation Commission (PLEAC) standards. Officer Joe Seskey is leading the effort to reach all of the milestones. He says each standard takes time to reach. He says it is not just a matter of writing a new policy, there needs to be research on best practices, policy drafted, the union given a chance to respond, officers trained and equipment purchased and installed. The legislation calls for the accreditation to be in place by the end of the year. Seskey says a more realistic goal is for the department to have its “mock inspection” by the end of the year and then a final inspection a few months later. However, Seskey says as each accreditation standard is met it is implemented so the city is already seeing the benefits of the process.

The bill dealing with placing video cameras in all police cars calls for any new cruiser to be equipped with a camera and for the department to add camera’s to 20% of the remaining fleet each year. Pittsburgh Police Commander Linda Varone says all the cars in Zone 5 will be equipped by the end of next week. She notes it is not as easy as screwing a camera into each car. She says there needs to be software to deal with the data, procedures to handle the data as evidence and training given to each officer on how to use the cameras. Burgess says undercover cars will be the last to be outfitted. He says the hope is that new technologies will be available soon that will allow the cameras to be installed without tipping off the community to the fact that the unmarked car is a police vehicle.

The third bill calls for any officer involved in an incident that is handed over to the Office of Municipal Investigations to be placed on paid administrative leave. The City’s Law Department has apparently refused to take a stand on the bill, which has given some council members concern. Councilman Bill Peduto says he needs that review and then went one step further asking Burgess to change the bill to place the officers on desk duty rather than paid leave. The measure is very clear in noting that the move is in no way to be considered a punishment or a suspension.

The fourth bill requires the Pittsburgh Police chief to publish an annual report that would deal with issues as mundane as the number of officers on the force and the number of officers on disability leave, to more in-depth data such as arrests by charge, race and gender, listed by zone.

The final bill would force the Citizen Police Review Board to investigate any case where a suspect is seriously injured or killed. Board Executive Director Beth Pittinger says that is not currently something the board has to do but it would not pose much of a hardship because the board members are already launching such investigations.

Burgess says he will consider making changes to legislation before it is brought up for debate in committee.

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