By Hannah Lynn
PITTSBURGH — While the votes are still being counted in Pennsylvania, not everything is as close a call as the presidential election. In the city of Pittsburgh, voters overwhelmingly passed a referendum to expand the powers of the Citizen Police Review Board.
The ballot question, which passed with 78 percent of the votes, according to unofficial tallies, asked voters to approve amending the city’s Home Rule Charter “to allow the Board to require police officers to participate in investigations, conducting performance audits of the Police Bureau, and preventing the removal of Board members except for just cause and with City Council approval.”
Essentially, the referendum would force police officers under investigation for misconduct to cooperate with the Citizen Police Review Board (currently, cooperation is not required). Officers could also be fired for refusing to cooperate with the CPRB.
The CPRB, an independent agency that investigates citizen complaints against the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, was created in 1997 after failed efforts by the City Council, when the U.S. Department of Justice “scrutinized the conduct of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police as a result of alleged patterns or practices of civil rights violations.”
The passing of the referendum comes after a summer filled with Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality in Pittsburgh, and across the country. Residents have been voicing demands for various types of police reform, especially after multiple incidents in which Pittsburgh Police confronted protesters with force, including using chemical spray like tear gas and projectiles like rubber bullets.
“I believe we can work together to facilitate police reform,” councilor Ricky Burgess, who introduced the ballot measure in June, told TribLive. “This is part of our agenda and campaign to make Black Pittsburgh matter.”
While the referendum does not directly affect how police officers conduct themselves — the CPRB does not have the power to enforce conduct — it is a step toward greater accountability for officers’ actions while on duty.
According to PublicSource, “Between 1998 and 2017, 3 percent of the more than 3,000 complaints CPRB received resulted in public hearings, one of the final stages of the board’s process.” The CPRB faces difficulty taking action because it does not always have the cooperation of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the union that represents the Pittsburgh Police.
In October, FOP president Robert Swartzwelder told WESA-FM that the referendum is “a waste of taxpayer money and time,” and hinted that the FOP could challenge the referendum if it passed.
“They could put that on the referendum, the citizens could vote for it, but if challenged by the Fraternal Order of Police, that referendum would become null and void,” said Swartzwelder.
Hannah Lynn is a reporter for Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared.