When a group of people is given great power to watch over the rest of us, how do we make sure they use that power correctly?
Pittsburgh’s Citizen Police Review Board was created in 1997 to do just that.
Its investigators weigh in on individual complaints and issue findings independent of city leadership and department administrators. Executive Director Elizabeth Pittinger, one of the longest-serving police oversight officials in the country, said that independence gives the CPRB some insulation from political influence and public opinion.
Pittinger joined University of Pittsburgh law professor and host David Harris on this week’s episode of 90.5 WESA’s Criminal Injustice podcast.
Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
DAVID HARRIS: What makes your independence so important?
BETH PITTINGER: It avoids the perception of a conflict of interest, because you're working for a politically elected executive. We have no obligation to pursue someone's political agenda. We’re there solely for the purpose of being independent, objective fact-finders as related to police policies and procedures and complaints against police. … And that sometimes is a big challenge, but citizen boards tend to perform as they're expected.
HARRIS: What are you actually empowered to do?
PITTINGER: To receive, investigate, hold public hearings and make recommendations to the mayor and the chief of police on all things related to operations of Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. The board has subpoena power and the power to conduct public hearings.
HARRIS: I know sometimes you get complaints from within the department from the rank-and-file. Why would they come to you over their own internal system?
PITTINGER: There are typically issues that an officer feels that supervisory or chain of command has not adequately resolved. Or there is a fear of retaliation, but yet there may be a circumstance that the officer is gravely concerned about, but cannot address it internally for fear of retaliation.
HARRIS: So they have an independent place to go.
PITTINGER: Sure they do. We have resolved several quietly, and some we addressed through a policy review. But we protect the confidentiality of anybody who comes to us unless the situation goes to a public hearing, at which point it's public. But we do try to resolve those kinds of things when we can in a very quiet, effective way.
HARRIS: You sometimes get asked to comment in the media about cases and complaints where the investigation isn't done and maybe all the facts aren't out. How do you handle that, and how do you think that affects your relationship with the police?
PITTINGER: Oh, I get criticized very highly for that by the police agencies, in particular police unions, that I should be quiet until the investigation is concluded. The other side of that is we have a community – the public. Their concerns have to have a way of being validated. I will express questions, ask questions (and) express opinions that I believe are an extension of community sense about a circumstance or situation. Recently there was an incident that involved someone a sports figure and a police officer.
HARRIS: You're speaking about the (alleged officer assault by Steelers assistant coach) Joey Porter outside a South Side bar.
PITTINGER: Yup. I asked a lot of questions. I tried to hold back, because I did promise some officers that I would be more reserved and thoughtful about questions I asked before an investigation is completed – and I am trying very hard to adhere to that promise – but that is why. It's not a predetermined conclusion that an officer did or didn't do something, but rather this is what we're curious about and who's going to tell us that.
HARRIS: There's sometimes a feeling that the CPRB is out to get the police. What would you say to that?
PITTINGER: Couldn't be further from the truth. CPRB has an interest in keeping police officers safe and protecting their reputations, just as it has an interest in keeping the community safe and protecting the people who come forth with questions about police conduct.
David’s conversation with Elizabeth Pittinger is part one in a pair of podcasts exploring how different police departments are monitored and investigated – including San Jose, Calif.'s Independent Police Auditor Walter Katz. Subscribe on iTunes, though your favorite podcast app and at criminalinjusticepodcast.com.