Image from Antwon Rose rally in Pittsburgh on June 21 by Mark Dixon used by permission via Flickr's Creative Commons.

On Wednesday, the Allegheny County Council held a preliminary public hearing on Bill 10909-18, a proposal from Rep. DeWitt Walton (D-Hill District) and Rep. Paul Klein (D-Point Breeze) that would create an independent civilian police review board.

Why now?

Walton introduced the bill over a year ago, in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Antwon Rose II.

Though the killing by East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld in June 2018 ignited a heated debate about justice and race in our region, activist Tim Stevens says tensions between Allegheny County’s black communities and local police have been a perennial source of conflict throughout his 50 years of advocacy.

“The system is balanced totally on the side of the police,” says Stevens, chair of the Hill District-based Black Political Empowerment Project (B-PEP).

Stevens was one of several local experts that the county council invited to speak at Wednesday’s hearing, where he strongly endorsed the proposal.

“Wherever we can, we need to give some balance between the police and the citizen,” says Stevens. “The existence of an independent police review board gives another tool toward that.”

How will the board work?

It would function in much the same way as the police review board that already exists for the City of Pittsburgh.

The board would have the power to carry out its own independent investigations of civilian complaints against county police. If the board finds wrongdoing, it can refer the matter to the courts. Final decisions on discipline measures will be left with the police leadership.

The bill refers only to the county police force. But it provides an option for independent municipalities and townships within in the county to voluntary join the effort. For these local police forces, “this is not a mandate,” Stevens points out. “It is an option they can choose to buy into.”

While there are many further reforms Stevens and other activists would like to see at the city, county and state level, he says the mere existence of a review board may help prevent future tragedies.

“Hopefully, with the existence of a citizen police review board, one of the effects might be, officers at least think twice before they act in what might be an inappropriate fashion,” Stevens speculates.

Will it pass?

Hard to say. The council’s four Republican members are against it, and the 11 Democrats are remaining tight-lipped, per reports from the meeting.

Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh, Allegheny County Communications Director Amie Downs confirmed that County Executive Rich Fitzgerald supports the legislation and will sign it into law, provided it reaches his desk.

When will we know more?

The final vote takes place at Allegheny County Council’s regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 27.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.