Joint audit of Pittsburgh Police finds racial disparities in marijuana charges
It recommends screening officers for affiliations with hate groups
(Image via Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism).
(*Editor’s Note: Three days after the results of the audit were announced, Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert announced his retirement. In a press conference held by the mayor’s office on May 27, Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey confirmed that he did not request Chief Schubert’s resignation. Deputy Chief Tom Stangrecki will serve as acting chief until a search committee is able to find a permanent replacement.)
By Jake Dabkowski
PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb emphasized three key findings in a recent report following an audit of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police: that the Pittsburgh Police disproportionately charged Black individuals for marijuana possession, that members of the police force should be screened for membership in extremist hate groups, and that there is a need for further transparency with data on the police force.
The first joint-audit conducted by the City Controller and the Citizen Police Review Board determined racial disparities in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.
Black individuals made up almost 85 percent of all marijuana related charges in Pittsburgh, despite census data showing that the city’s population is only 22.5 percent Black, the audit revealed. Black people and white people use marijuana at relatively equal rates, according to a 2020 study conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The city of Pittsburgh decriminalized marijuana usage in 2016, which leaves the decision for whether to arrest or cite an individual up to individual law enforcement officers. According to Lamb, the audit focused on marijuana charges because jurisdiction was given to individual officers.
“First off, in 2016, the city of Pittsburgh decriminalized the possession of small amount of marijuana… and so police officers are given certain discretion as to how to charge when that happens,” Lamb said.
Beth Pittinger, executive director of the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board said that Black residents made up the majority of those charged with “the more serious state offense as opposed to the citation option offered them in the city. ”
“These numbers show how much work we have ahead of us if we’re going to achieve equity for our Black communities,” Pittinger said.
As to whether the audit found racial disparities in other criminal charges or arrests made by police in Pittsburgh, Lamb said, “You got to assume that if there’s inequity at that level that there’s inequity at a lot of other levels as well. That’s what we’re trying to highlight and what the police bureau wants to address.”
Lamb repeatedly emphasized during the press conference the need for the Pittsburgh Police to screen officers and employees for affiliations with extremist hate groups and paramilitary groups.
The Controller’s report cited a 2017 joint bulletin release from the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security titled “White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement” which found that extremists groups infiltrated law enforcement agencies.
Lamb did not indicate that any Pittsburgh police officers have joined these groups.
The Pittsburgh Police updated it’s guidelines in 2020 to prohibit on and off duty “expressions of discrimination of violence.” The audit recommends “periodic and random” social media checks of active-duty Pittsburgh Police employees to ensure compliance with this policy. If the policy is adopted, screenings would be handled by the Pittsburgh Office of Municipal Investigations. The bureau supports this recommendation, according to the report.
“It’s a little difficult in the fact that people do have a right to First Amendment free speech. But courts have ruled that in this instance, that can be a measure for us to screen and hire police officers,” Lamb said.
Another policy cited in the audit is a 2021 city ordinance that bans officers from conducting traffic stops for minor violations as a means of reducing a disproportionate number of traffic stops involving people of color. While this ordinance is currently being enforced, the Pittsburgh Police has been informed that should this ordinance stay in place, they are at risk of losing their accreditation, according to Pittinger.
The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police is accredited through the Pennsylvania Law Enforcement Accreditation Commission (PLEAC). Last month, the PLEAC notified the bureau that because of this ordinance that they are “no longer in full compliance with the Accreditation Program and Standards” and that the bureau will have until July 26th to address the issue.
The Pennsylvania State Motor Vehicle Code has a different standard related to motor vehicle stops, Pittinger said.
“This is an example of local policy having an unintended and undesirable effect… or conversely an accreditation system that is too rigid to recognize reasonable local autonomy,” Pittinger wrote in an email to Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
As part of the audit, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police was given a chance to reply to each individual recommendation.The bureau acknowledged that the traffic stop ordinance is effective, but also noted their potential loss of accreditation. A spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety indicated that they had no further comment beyond their responses in the audit.
“One thing that’s very important is that law enforcement accreditation,” Pittinger said. “If we lose that we have lost a very significant assurance to the public, and that would be very, very bad for the Bureau.”
The other key recommendation that Lamb and Pittinger focused on was the need for the police to be transparent with data. Lamb and Pittinger both thanked the bureau for its compliance with the audit, but criticized the lack of transparency regarding some data. Both placed the blame for this on third party data management company B-Three Solutions, not the police. In 2015, former Police Chief Cameron McLay asked the FBI to investigate the city’s relationship with B-Three.
The audit report recommends that an office be established within the mayor’s administration to “track, analyze, and present data and use this data to inform police policy and reduce over policing of minority communities.” The mayor’s office indicated that they would be unable to comment in time for publication.
“The bureau’s ability to modernize data collection, liability, and reporting continues to be hampered by the failure of a contracted software company to upgrade and integrate important components,” Pittinger said.
Jake Dabkowski is an editorial intern through the Pittsburgh Media Partnership from Point Park’s Center for Media Innovation. He can be reached at [email protected]. He wrote this piece for the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, where it first appeared.
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