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Hard Line

It was not Philly but Pennsylvania‘s second city that the Justice Department chose for its first intervention in big-city law enforcement. The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police has been operating under a Department of Justice (DOJ) consent decree since April 1997. Monitored externally and enforced by a federal judge, it’s the toughest version of the range of options now confronting L.A. -- the one that‘s anathema to the LAPD brass.

Failure to comply subjects the city to contempt-of-court penalties, including substantial fines.

At the core of the five-year agreement is an “Performance Assessment Review System” to flag problem officers, which compiles complete data for each officer on uses of force, citizen complaints, traffic stops, warrantless searches, and all “discretionary” arrests made for such charges as disorderly conduct or obstruction of justice.

It’s just this sort of systematic tracking that both L.A. and Philadelphia have been struggling to implement -- without success -- for close to a decade. Under the hammer of the federal-court decree, however, Pittsburgh managed to have a computerized monitoring system in place and operating within 12 months.

There were other changes as well -- deeper complaint investigations, a new use-of-force policy -- and together they‘ve made a distinct impact, leaders in Pittsburgh agree. Within that consensus, however, degrees of satisfaction vary. “They’ve fixed all the easy things,” says ACLU executive director Witold “Vic” Walczak, “but there are still 27 cops with 129 complaints in the last two years.” Sala Udin, an African-American city councilman and longtime police-abuse critic, says officers of “the cowboy style” have left and “newer officers have a different attitude.”

Though there had been no riots, no Rodney King--type incident, a new attitude was badly needed in Pittsburgh. The disappearance of steel making (and 10 percent of the city‘s population) required municipal-budget cutbacks that put patrols in the hands of ill-trained greenhorns. And that, in 1996, prompted an ACLU-backed class-action lawsuit alleging beatings, harassment and groundless arrests, and demanding discipline and training reforms.

While the city pondered its response to the ACLU, a damage suit by a roughed-up dialysis patient -- also represented by the class-action’s attorney, Tim O‘Brien -- broke new ground in two ways. First, plaintiff Gerald Hess won a landmark figure ($200,000) for local police-abuse cases. Stopped for speeding and falsely charged with cocaine possession, Hess required two operations to fix damage to his fistula (the opening for dialysis treatment) after his encounter with patrolman Gordon McDaniel.

Secondly, jurors found that Pittsburgh’s policies and customs -- its lax discipline -- were in part responsible for McDaniel‘s behavior. Since McDaniel had also been the subject of four other force complaints within a year of the Hess incident -- including one from a female officer -- but received no discipline or retraining, this was not a difficult conclusion to reach. But it was an ominous finding for the city, opening the door to liability in future cases.

The continuing litigation finally drew the interest of the federal government. Three lawyers from the DOJ’s civil rights division spent 10 months assessing the situation, interviewing most of the 53 plaintiffs whose encounters with Pittsburgh police formed the basis for the ACLU lawsuit.

The government lawyers then opened talks with the city. Mayor Tom Murphy seemed ready for some degree of reform. “We got good cooperation from the city,” says one upper-echelon DOJ official. Yet Pittsburgh insisted on excluding the ACLU from settlement discussions even though the litigation rested on ACLU-collected evidence.

Besides, there was little reason to expect change from within, largely due to the clout of the entrenched Fraternal Order of Police, whose Lodge No. 1 (the first in the nation to gain recognition) represents Pittsburgh police employees. Their contract forces the city to submit all disciplinary conflicts to binding arbitration. In practice, this meant all but the most atrocious offenses got mere wrist slaps.

Weighing the financial and policy costs of resisting outside oversight, Mayor Murphy finally opted to sign a detailed consent decree. The methodology for collecting monitoring data was spelled out, including quarterly reviews to assess possible racial bias. All officers get written performance evaluations, including their complaint history.

The city also agreed to develop -- with DOJ input -- a use-of-force policy “in compliance with . . . current professional standards” and to train all officers in verbal de-escalation techniques as an alternative to force. “Field” strip searches (on the street) banned except in life-or-death circumstances.

Contrary to some officers‘ predictions that policing would be crippled by the decree, crimes dropped in almost every category of felony, and, perhaps more importantly, the proportion of cases solved has been rising.

Compliance is monitored by James Ginger, a Texas law-enforcement consultant selected as “auditor” by mutual agreement of the city and the Justice Department. In his 10th quarter’s report, marking the halfway point in the five-year process, he finds the city adhering to its reform plan in 71 of 74 prescribed tasks.

Trouble spots remain, particularly in the handling of citizen complaints. Over the latest reporting year, 98 complaints were investigated and resolved; simultaneously, 302 new ones came in. The complaint backlog has mushroomed to 678, and Ginger notes that all the police chief‘s latest 11 disciplinary actions stemming from complaints had to be decided without completed reports.

The decree is, in the end, more about process than outcome. It gives the Police Department what Walczak calls “management tools,” but has limited ability to determine how well these tools are wielded.

While 16 officers have been terminated since the decree kicked in, there has been no wholesale housecleaning. As this reporter was trying to reach a senior commander, the phone was answered “McDaniel.” It wasn’t the once-pugnacious Gordon McDaniel on the line. But, said his uncle and fellow officer Thomas McDaniel, he is still on the force -- “as he should be -- he was railroaded.”

In some quarters, old attitudes still survive. But with the incident counters hovering over their shoulders, McDaniel the younger and others of his style or temperament are likely to be, as Councilman Udin says, “more careful” now.


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