Since mid-July, Allegheny County has seen four police shootings, three of them fatal, in Shaler, South Park, Ross and Penn Hills.
None has sparked the kind of public outcry that followed the June 2018 shooting of Antwon Rose, an unarmed black 17-year-old, in East Pittsburgh, but one piece of legislation that came out of the aftermath of Antwon’s death finally may see the light of day this month.
According to Allegheny County Councilman Dewitt Walton, D-Hill District, if all goes according to plan, his legislation to create a countywide civilian police review board, introduced over six months ago, will have a committee hearing and a vote by the end of August.
The committee hearing is scheduled for Wednesday at 4 p.m. in the County Courthouse’s gold room, where council meetings are held.
They plan to have a vote before council at the regular meeting Aug. 27, Mr. Walton said.
According to Mr. Walton, recent shootings have not affected the timeline. “While those incidents have generated some concern, it has had no impact on our decision-making, on when we brought it for a final committee hearing and vote.”
Khalid Raheem, who helped organize the Committee for a Civilian Police Review Board of Allegheny County, said, “We definitely support the legislation. It’s not completely what we wanted but it’s a very good start. It’s a move in the right direction.”
Two of the recent shootings did not involve officers from departments in the county:
• On July 23, 31-year-old Omari Ali Thompson, of Pittsburgh, was shot and killed in Ross by an officer from the state Attorney General’s office.
• On Aug. 3, a 29-year-old man was shot in South Park by a Monongahela police officer, following a car chase that began in Washington County.
The other two shootings were by officers from Allegheny County municipal departments:
• On July 14, Onaje Dickinson, 20, of Pittsburgh, was fatally shotby a Penn Hills police officer.
• On Aug. 6, 49-year-old Don Babbit, of Shaler, was shot and killed by Shaler and Hampton police officers outside his home.
All police-involved shootings in the county are investigated by Allegheny County Police and then turned over to the district attorney for potential charging decisions.
Neither the county police nor the district attorney’s office has reported any information on the recent shootings yet. A spokesman for the county police said they expect “more info to be released” this week.
The county ordinance initially would cover exclusively the Allegheny County Police, as the county government does not have jurisdiction over municipal agencies. But municipal governments could choose to opt into coverage, and Mr. Walton has said that several local officials have said they intend to do so. Sharpsburg Mayor Matthew Rudzki has been public about his intention to bring his town’s force under the county board’s oversight.
“We want to encourage the other municipalities and police departments to embrace this concept,” said Mr. Raheem.
The ordinance creates a board with the ability to investigate allegations of misconduct and then to recommend actions, either to prosecutors or to relevant municipalities and police departments, but no power to compel action. If an agency does not hand over documents or witnesses, the board would be able to ask the courts to intervene, and if it determines misconduct occurred, it can refer the case to state or county prosecutors, or recommend that the police department discipline the officer or make reforms.
The board would be required to freeze investigations during criminal proceedings, such as a case filed by the district attorney’s office.
The bill’s original sponsors, Mr. Walton and Paul Klein, D-Point Breeze, remain its only sponsors, and it has faced vocal opposition from some of the council’s Republicans, who hold four of 13 seats.
“Every one of the communities that wants this, they have the ability to form their own,” said Councilman Sam DeMarco, R-South Fayette.
“I don’t want to relieve elected officials from the responsibility to oversee the police in their communities. The public shouldn’t either,” continued Mr. DeMarco, who chairs the county Republican committee and county council’s Republican caucus.
But eight of the members, a majority, voted to hold public hearings last year, and other major county Democrats have not expressed opposition.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald does not comment on specific county council ordinances before the council votes, but has said he supports some amount of civilian police oversight in principle.
Mike Manko, District Attorney Stephen Zappala’s spokesman, said in an emailed statement, “If the residents of the county, through their respective council members, believe that such a board gives them a stronger voice in police matters, District Attorney Zappala would not oppose such a development.”
If the bill does not pass, said Mr. Raheem, “The people again will continue to voice our opposition to police misconduct and our support for some sort of community oversight.”