This story was originally published by PublicSource, a news partner of NEXTpittsburgh. PublicSource is a nonprofit media organization delivering local journalism at publicsource.org. You can sign up for their newsletters at publicsource.org/newsletters.

By Rich Lord

The City of Pittsburgh offered its police union substantial raises for new hires, but also sought big changes to disciplinary procedures, in a final offer that the rank-and-file ultimately rejected.

That September vote — 377 to 206, according to Fraternal Order of Police President Robert Swartzwelder — sends the union and city into binding arbitration with the contract set to expire on Dec. 31. Police will still be working on New Year’s Day; a 54-year-old law will keep them on the job as three arbitrators hear both sides and craft the next contract.

Mayor Ed Gainey ran last year on a platform of implementing community-oriented policing instead of “over-policing” of Black neighborhoods; recruiting more minority officers; disciplining and firing police who commit misconduct; and shifting some funds from law enforcement to social work.

His administration’s final offer to the police union suggests that the cost of policing will be going up and outlines an ambitious plan to revamp discipline that has proved, so far, to be a hard sell.

“We are disappointed that the FOP has decided to reject our last, best, and final offer,” Gainey said in a statement to PublicSource. The administration, he continued, “believed that our proposal would have created a fair contract that would have helped us build the right type of policing to reflect the values of our city.”

Big raises, skewed to the bottom

The raises offered by the Gainey administration range from 24% for first-year officers to 6% for lieutenants. Inflation is now estimated at more than 8% over the last 12 months.

“We proposed wages that would make our police salaries competitive with those of other police forces across the region, a step that would allow us to recruit and retain officers, while helping us to diversify our police force and promote the right type of policing our city needs,” Gainey said in the statement.

“I don’t believe that a $65,000 salary for a beginning police officer is out of line,” said city Controller Michael Lamb, who has announced he will not run for reelection next year. The need for big raises is “what comes from this system we have in Allegheny County with so many police departments who pay substantially more than the city pays.”

He said big police raises likely would create a budget problem. “But unfortunately this is the situation we are in.”

Swartzwelder said that the slimmer hikes for veteran officers would not help with retention.

Under the city’s final offer to the FOP, pay for all ranks would have increased by 3% in 2024 and the same in 2025.

The city’s offer also would have eliminated the option of taking compensatory time instead of overtime pay. Swartzwelder said that was a deal-breaker for some officers, especially those who want to spend time with their families.

A disciplinary matrix and 12 terminable offenses

PublicSource reported in April that disciplinary actions against Pittsburgh police doubled during the years 2017 through 2021 as compared to the prior five years. In years for which records were available, there were anywhere from zero to five officer terminations in the bureau.

The Gainey administration already has terminated five officers involved in the October arrest and transport that left 54-year-old Jim Rogers dead.

Some of the punishments meted out by the bureau are contested by the union and end up in arbitration. That process is not public unless the arbitrator’s decisions are appealed to court.

The city’s final offer to the union called for a “Discipline Matrix” that would bring about “fair, rational, efficient and consistent” punishments for violations of bureau codes. The offer did not detail the matrix, saying it would be “finalized through collective bargaining” or arbitration. Philadelphia has such a matrix, outlining scores of violations and the penalties for first, second and third offenses.

“You find them in many of the large police departments now,” said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and author of several books on law enforcement. The goal, he said, is to replace “discretion-based systems,” which were unpredictable, slow and often resulted in discipline being overturned by arbitrators.

In the past, Pittsburgh’s efforts to discipline officers have been overturned because of inconsistent punishments, said Miracle Jones, director of advocacy and policy for 1Hood Media, which is involved in the local police accountability movement.

“You have to have a past practice of firing officers for similar misconduct,” she said, or “it’s very hard to win in arbitration.”

Gainey’s offer also called for agreement on 12 “terminable offenses,” but did not specify them.

That language, though, appears to echo the state police collective bargaining agreement, which identifies conduct that “absolutely threatens the integrity” of the department, including:

  • Any felony or any misdemeanor that involves a potential sentence of more than a year of incarceration
  • Domestic violence involving physical abuse
  • Use of a firearm to threaten another, except when appropriate in the course of duty
  • Sexual misconduct or sexual harassment “of a serious nature”
  • Deception in investigations
  • Theft
  • Use of illegal substances
  • Positive drug tests
  • Driving under the influence, under some circumstances
  • Losing driving or firearm privileges
  • Fighting on the job, except when “reasonably necessary”
  • Becoming disqualified from using law enforcement information systems.

Swartzwelder countered the matrix and terminable offenses would “decimate due process rights”  and are an effort “to limit the ability of the arbitrator to see the facts.”

Jones had a different read.

“It is a good sign to show that the Gainey administration is taking police accountability very seriously,” she said. “It is one of the things that a lot of organizations and activists have said, that the police are unwilling or unable to reform themselves.”

PublicSource

Now-Mayor Ed Gainey, when he was a state representative in 2020, marching through Homewood protesting against violence in the community. Photo by Nick Childers / PublicSource.

Gainey called it “unfortunate that FOP leadership couldn’t agree with us that officers who are found to have committed serious offenses such as stealing from taxpayers, belonging to terrorist organizations, or abusing their partners are unfit to serve our city as police officers.”

As part of the arbitration process, Swartzwelder said, each side has presented the other with a list of issues in dispute. The city has not included the disciplinary proposals in its list of issues in dispute, he said, so they won’t be part of the arbitration process.

Gainey’s statement did not directly address a question from PublicSource about whether the administration would push for the matrix and terminable offenses in arbitration. “Moving forward we will begin this work using management tools to create clear and consistent expectations for the members of the bureau and ensure our officers and residents are informed that certain behaviors will not be tolerated in our city,” he said.

Swartzwelder said the city is seeking the right to talk publicly about the status of police disciplinary processes, even if they have not been fully investigated and adjudicated. “In my belief, that will cause riots, or huge, huge civil unrest,” he said.

“We’re not just people out here trying to create chaos and we’re not people out here marching to be marching,” said Jones. “We’re out here fighting for changes because the barest of reforms are not possible because the FOP refuses to cooperate with the community, refuses to change with the times and take policing in another direction.”

Swartzwelder said arbitration would likely yield a new contract, early next year, which will be retroactive to Jan. 1, 2023. The two sides can still negotiate during arbitration, he added.

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s managing editor. He can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.