It’s been three months since 17-year-old Antwon Rose Jr. was shot in the back and killed by a police officer in East Pittsburgh.
While both the criminal and civil cases related to the murder continue to wind through the courts, local politicians are considering larger reforms aimed at preventing similar tragedies from occurring. But progress has been slow, and officials have been loath to discuss specific details.
In East Pittsburgh, local leaders are considering a motion to disband the police force completely and come under the protection of county police or a neighboring township. The motion was discussed in a borough council meeting on Aug. 22, where the council said they were already in contact with county officials and neighboring municipalities.
Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh, a spokesperson for Mayor Louis Payne of East Pittsburgh said the mayor had nothing to add beyond what was discussed at the meeting.
When asked about the possibility of county police absorbing East Pittsburgh, Allegheny County Manager William D. McKain said he does not discuss private meetings that address the sharing of government services “out of respect for the participants.”
At the county-wide level, council members will be holding a series of open hearings to gain public input on a proposed civilian review board that would monitor local police from the entire Greater Pittsburgh Region.
The County Executive’s office referred all questions about the review board to the County Council. County Council Members Paul Klein and Dewitt Walton, who first introduced the legislation, did not respond to requests for comment.
While answers from our civic leaders are not forthcoming, local experts interviewed by NEXTpittsburgh say the consolidation of small, municipal police forces like East Pittsburgh is long overdue. In Allegheny County, there are 113 municipal police departments serving 119 communities.
“I think it is programmatically, procedurally and financially absurd,” says Cyril Wecht, a former forensic pathologist and former chair of the Allegheny County Democratic party.
University of Pittsburgh School of Law Professor David Harris, a specialist in policing, agreed, saying “a lot of them clearly don’t have the manpower or the resources to do the job the way it has to be done.”
As District Attorney Stephen Zappala noted in the aftermath of Antwon Rose’s shooting, the East Pittsburgh police force had absolutely no guidelines for the use of deadly force. “That’s just wrong,” says Harris.
While he broadly supports more civilian oversight, Harris pointed out that the county-wide review board for police conduct will be a more difficult undertaking. Such a board would have no actual legal power on its own and would require legislation from the state to compel local municipalities to go under its jurisdiction, or it would need volunteer support from the dozens of local police departments in the county.
Wecht says that increased oversight and support for police could come through a number of different policies, including higher standards for incoming cadets, regular psychological exams and orientation sessions in the communities they’ll be policing.
Not least of all, they need more money. “The salaries of cops have to be raised significantly,” Wecht says. “It just follows, if you’re going for more qualified people, for more education, for more monitoring, increasing expectations and so on, you have to thank these people.”
While progress is slow, Harris says he thinks recent elections around the nation will likely compel local leaders to act, one way or the other. He points to the fact that the district attornies in both Ferguson, Mo. and Cleveland, Ohio were rejected by voters after bungling investigations into similar shootings of unarmed black men. Last week, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced he would not seek a third term in the face of wide public scorn over his office’s attempts to suppress incriminating evidence against the police.
“There’s an awareness that some of these things have to change. That’s not going to be enough, but it’s clearly influencing the way these cases are handled,” Harris says. “The laws have not changed, the Supreme Court decisions have not changed … those will have to change in order for us to get better at this.”
While many in Pittsburgh may balk at the cost and complexity of the proposed reforms, Harris says they will save the region from paying an even steeper cost: “People say it’s too expensive. While how expensive would it have been to have two weeks of rioting like they had in Ferguson?”