ACLU and Community Groups Ask Court to Reject Proposed Justice Department Changes to Police Abuse Monitoring

September 12, 2002 12:00 am

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PITTSBURGH – In preparation for a hearing tomorrow to determine whether Justice Department oversight should be lifted from the troubled Pittsburgh police department, 18 civil rights, community, religious and minority-police-officer organizations have filed a friend-of-the-court brief opposing the proposed changes and asking the court to order increased federal oversight to address serious problems with internal affairs investigations into misconduct allegations.

Witold Walczak, executive director of the Greater Pittsburgh Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and author of the legal brief, criticized the Justice Department’s willingness to reward the city when a court-appointed auditor’s most recent reports documented serious systemic problems.

“”Countless police officers, including some with long histories of abuse, continue to patrol the streets with serious misconduct allegations pending against them,”” he said. “”The system to investigate misconduct is still broken and, according to the auditor, getting worse. Why is the Justice Department proposing to lift federal oversight now, when the City’s compliance with the consent decree is at an all-time low? The people who live and work in the City deserve better from the Ashcroft Justice Department.””

On August 29, the Justice Department and the City of Pittsburgh jointly petitioned the Court to relax federal monitoring over the Pittsburgh Police Department, which has been in place since the parties entered into a historic consent decree in 1997. The decree was the first-ever use of powers given by Congress in 1994 (in the wake of the Rodney King riots) to the Justice Department, authorizing court action to remedy patterns and practices of constitutional violations by law enforcement departments.

The decree was prompted by a 1996 ACLU lawsuit filed against the city on behalf of two organizations – the NAACP and Parents Against Violence – and 66 individual misconduct victims. In 1999, the federal court determined that the ACLU lawsuit was the “”catalyst”” for the decree.

The brief filed yesterday made four points:

  1. The court should not allow the parties to “”terminate”” any consent-decree provisions in the face of repeated and current police union efforts to undermine the decree through collective bargaining. Enforcement of provisions could be suspended once the City attains full compliance with the decree, but all provisions must be retained to prevent evisceration of the best-management practices by the collective bargaining process;

  2. The City’s Law Department should be excluded from any managerial or other role in the internal affairs division (Office of Municipal Investigations or OMI) because their involvement is an inherent conflict of interest;

  3. The court should give day-to-day management responsibility over OMI to an independent and qualified outside agent, like a special master, or should increase significantly the current auditor’s responsibilities, until the severe problems are corrected; and

  4. The court should reject the proposed change that would prohibit the auditor from reporting statistical information about police officers’ uses of force, searches and seizures and traffic stops. These are important barometers for the community to gauge police officer performance and whether the City is backtracking from consent decree responsibilities.

The parties filing the brief and opposing the modification are the ACLU, NAACP-Pittsburgh Branch, Urban League of Pittsburgh, National Conference for Community and Justice, Guardians of Greater Pittsburgh, Thomas Merton Center, Parents Against Violence, Black Radical Congress, Pittsburgh Coalition to Counter Hate Groups, Citizens for Police Accountability, Black Radical Congress, Free Getu Coalition, Students in Solidarity, National Conference of Peace Keeping and Conflict Resolution, YWCA Center for Race Relations, Alliance for Progressive Action, Pennsylvania Baptist State Convention and National Black Police Association.

A hearing on the proposed consent-decree modification is scheduled for Friday, September 13 at 9:30 a.m. in U. S. District Judge Robert J. Cindrich’s courtroom. Judge Cindrich will allow the ACLU, as representative for the community groups, and the police officers’ union, to participate in the hearing. Additionally, many of the group leaders, including Tim Stevens of the NAACP and Esther Bush of the Urban League, will be permitted to present their views to the court. A prayer vigil sponsored by Pittsburgh Interfaith Ministries will be held outside the federal courthouse on Grant Street at 9:00 a.m.

Court papers and other background information on the 1996 ACLU lawsuit, the consent decree, the Auditor’s quarterly monitoring reports and the proposed modification to the decree can be found at

The brief filed yesterday is online at

A document showing what parts of the consent decree will be affected by the proposed DOJ/Pittsburgh modifications is online at

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