Citizen Review Board checks police performance

By Lindsay Carroll

‘ ‘ ‘ This is the seventh installment in a series of reports from Lindsay Carroll, who enrolled… ‘ ‘ ‘ This is the seventh installment in a series of reports from Lindsay Carroll, who enrolled in the Citizens’ Police Academy, a 15-week course run by the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. ‘ ‘ ‘ Police shot and killed Jerry Jackson shortly after 1 a.m. on April 6, 1995, in Armstrong Tunnel, after police pursued the man who fled after committing a traffic violation. ‘ ‘ ‘ It was an incident many Pittsburghers remember ‘- and the tension it created in the city caused a string of events targeting police reform, said Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘It was a very tumultuous and chaotic time,’ said Pittinger. ‘ ‘ ‘ Pittinger visited the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Citizens’ Police Academy to discuss her job as a member of the Citizens Police Review Board, an independent agency created by referendum to investigate complaints about Pittsburgh police. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘We strive to stay on the middle line between impartiality and objectivity,’ said Pittinger. ‘ ‘ ‘ In 1995, some Pittsburgh residents called Jackson’s death murder, and this incited a grassroots movement for more police accountability and civil rights. Jackson was black, and Pittsburgh Housing Authority officer John Charmo, who shot Jackson, is white. ‘ ‘ ‘ As a result of the Jackson shooting and other incidents at the time, the U.S. Department of Justice intervened, said Pittinger. ‘ ‘ ‘ It investigated the Police Bureau and established a consent decree, signed in April of 1997, which consisted of 79 items for the Pittsburgh police to change. These included operating policies, community relations policies, complaint investigations and employee management. ‘ ‘ ‘ The next month, the city voted on a referendum that would create the Citizens Police Review Board. ‘ ‘ ‘ The act won in 20 of 32 city wards, with 57 percent voting for the Review Board. City council drafted the necessary legislation, and Mayor Tom Murphy signed it into law in August of 1997. ‘ ‘ ‘ Pittinger said having the Board reduced criticism that police accountability was a racial issue. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘It was not limited to certain neighborhoods or races,’ said Pittinger. ‘There was no question that this was a concern to most of the people in Pittsburgh.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ The Citizens Police Review Board is made of seven volunteer members, four of whom are appointed by the mayor, three by city council with the mayor’s approval and two of whom have previous law enforcement experience. ‘ ‘ ‘ The Board opened to receive complaints on July 15, 1998. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘A lot of people said we wouldn’t be here for a year, and now here we are, 11 years later,’ said Pittinger. ‘ ‘ ‘ Pittinger said the Review Board was a ‘huge victory’ for civil and human rights activists who had concerns about the Police Bureau’s state. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘There was an absence of structure and an absence of accountability,’ she said. ‘ ‘ ‘ Initially, Charmo was not charged with a crime, but after several appeals he was convicted of manslaughter. ‘ ‘ ‘ Charmo originally reported that he fired shots at Jackson in self-defense after he saw the Mazda Jackson was driving turn around to face him in the tunnel, according to a slideshow on the Citizens Police Review Board Web site. Charmo and other officers fired 51 rounds, including 35 rounds after the car stopped, at Jackson, who was later found to be unarmed. ‘ ‘ ‘ Bullets penetrated Jackson 14 times. Although officers initially testified in accordance with Charmo’s original report, later testimonies and videotape surveillance revealed contradictions. ‘ ‘ ‘ Pittinger said that people can submit complaints about the police to the Board online through the city’s Web site. They can also attend the Board’s public meetings. ‘ ‘ ‘ Pittinger said the Board would like to challenge the traditional law enforcement mindset about community relations. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘We are not on a cop witch-hunt. We are not pro-cop. We are not pro-citizen,’ said Pittinger. ‘History teaches about the future. If we don’t pay attention to it, we’re going to repeat it.’