ACLU, NAACP Join in Opposing End to Justice Department Oversight of Pittsburgh Police

January 9, 2002

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

PITTSBURGH--The NAACP today joined the American Civil Liberties Union in saying that they oppose ending federal government supervision of the Pittsburgh Police Bureau because the agency has failed to fix serious problems in the internal affairs division that investigates civilian complaints about police misconduct. 

Fixing the internal affairs system, known as OMI (Office of Municipal Investigations) is a key requirement of a 1997 consent decree between the City and the U. S. Department of Justice, an agreement that was prompted by a 1996 ACLU lawsuit alleging that City officials had ignored a longstanding pattern and practice of police misconduct.

Witold Walczak, Executive Director of the Pittsburgh ACLU, cautioned that the City's failure to correct major problems at OMI precluded ending federal oversight. 

"The ACLU and NAACP sued the City in 1996 largely because the internal affairs system failed to fairly and zealously investigate civilian complaints of police misconduct," he said. "In the ten years preceding the decree, the City did not discharge a single officer because of a civilian complaint. Full, fair and timely internal affairs investigations are the linchpin of a good police department. Unless management knows how its officers are behaving in the streets, they can neither control nor correct improper behavior."

Compliance reports provided to a federal judge, prepared by court-appointed auditor Dr. James Ginger, indicate that the City has failed to comply with mandated OMI performance levels for more than a year. The City has now been out of compliance with the Decree for four consecutive quarters.

Ginger's last report, issued in October 2001, warns that the City's ongoing failure to fix OMI "threaten[s] the city's ability to attain and retain compliance with a wide variety of requirements of the consent decree." Ginger noted that the Chief was being forced to decide on promotions for officers with unresolved complaints.

Tim Stevens, Pittsburgh Branch NAACP President, indicated that OMI has been out of compliance the entire time since 1997, and that "this remains a major concern of the Pittsburgh Branch NAACP -- and will remain so until the problems are resolved. Even with federal oversight, OMI's serious backlog has not improved. Without the oversight, we fear the situation could even worsen." (A full statement follows below.)

The decree's minimum five-year term expires this April, but the agreement specifies that it will end only if the City has been in substantial compliance for 2 consecutive years. The City's OMI investigations is and has been out of compliance for more than a year. The ACLU will argue that the decree must be strictly enforced, and that monitoring must continue until both the police bureau and OMI have been problem-free for 2 years.

On the other hand, both Stevens and Walczak praised police brass for their dedication to overhauling the personnel management system within the Bureau. 

"Chief McNeilly deserves a lot of credit for implementing the consent decree in both letter and spirit," Walczak said. "The result is a more disciplined and professional police force that shows greater regard for people's constitutional rights. Today's Pittsburgh Police Bureau is not the same one we sued in 1996--it is better in almost every way."

The case re-emerged in the spotlight last week when Judge Robert Cindrich issued an order setting April 22 as the start-date for 43 separate jury trials, involving 54 plaintiffs and more than 75 police officers. Further details will be set on March 15. Of the original 66 plaintiffs who sued the City in 1996 and 1997, 10 withdrew their cases after the Consent Decree was signed, one was dismissed, and one lost at trial, a case that is now on appeal.

Judge Cindrich last week told local reporters that he regretted the delay in setting trial dates for the damages claims, but that the Consent Decree and reform process took precedence.

ACLU cooperating attorney Timothy P. O'Brien, the lead lawyer on the damages cases, praised the plaintiffs for having already performed a valuable public service.

"The people who filed this lawsuit deserve tremendous credit for seeking to reform the department's practices, because in so doing they actually delayed their day in court for getting damages. These folks were not only courageous, but sacrificed their own interests to help the community."

Plaintiffs in the case have been represented by a four-lawyer team. Besides Walczak and O'Brien, Jere Krakoff and Jim Carroll have been involved with the case since 1995. The ACLU expects to supplement this team with additional lawyers to handle the 43 trials.

The Justice Department Consent Decree is online at
http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/split/documents/pittssa.htm

 

The NAACP statement follows:

NAACP Joins ACLU in Opposing End to Court-Ordered Police Monitoring in Pittsburgh

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Wednesday, January 9, 2002

PITTSBURGH--At its meeting of Tuesday, January 8, 2002, the Executive Committee of the Pittsburgh Branch NAACP voted unanimously to stand with its partner, the ACLU of Greater Pittsburgh, in opposition to the proposed lifting of the 1997 consent decree with the Department of Justice governing police operations in the City of Pittsburgh.

The lifting of the consent decree oversight would be based on the City of Pittsburgh having been in substantial compliance for the period of at least two years with the decree mandate. That has not happened.

Pittsburgh Branch NAACP President, Tim Stevens, noted that OMI, the internal affairs system of the City's police department, has been out of compliance the entire time since 1997, and this remains a major concern of the Pittsburgh Branch NAACP -- and will remain so until the problems are resolved. With the presence of the consent decree oversight, the serious backlog of OMI has not improved. Without the oversight, we fear the situation could even worsen.

The consent decree in no way hampers the police's ability to be effective. Oversight needs to be in place to ensure that it runs efficiently and within the guidelines of the consent decree.

We join the ACLU of Greater Pittsburgh in commending the City of Pittsburgh in their areas of progress. However, we would be remiss in our responsibility as a civil rights organization in advocating the removal of the consent decree oversight at this time.

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