What I Think Allegheny County Should Do to Hold Police Accountable BEFORE They Are Hired

Just my personal $.02 here.

One issue that arises repeatedly when we are discussing police officers who kill civilians is the failure to ‘catch’ the cops who move from police department to police department because of discipline issues or misconduct or just because they are not good cops.

There are two sides to this problem – the failure of the hiring department to conduct a thorough background check and the failure of the previous employers to disclose this potentially career disrupting information.

So what the County could do is create a position within the existing County system – a civilian position – of a background investigator who is available to all law enforcement bodies in the County (or perhaps beyond) to do a thorough background check. For a fee that is used to help subsidize the position.

This way we have an experienced professional who understands how to do a background check, understands these patterns of jumping around, understands what departments are compelled and not compelled to share about their former cops, and all of that information is part of file. In other words, we have a clear paper trail using a standard procedure to assess the background of the applicant – personal references, statements from all previous employers (even a ‘no comment’), residency requirements, criminal background check, a credit report, etc. Plus the other pieces that are or should be standard.

This saves the assorted departments the time and energy to bring themselves up to speed on the best practices as well as actually conducting the background checks. That saves taxpayer resources.

This should give departments a more comprehensive packet to evaluate new candidates, prepared by someone who is trained to do this, versus the shared HR person who maybe does one cop background per year for a PT position paying $13/hour.

This will catch the department jumpers at least within the County because one point person will see their name and check the existing files. Some people have a perfectly valid reason to leave one job and apply for a similar position in another municipality. But if they don’t or if there are concerns or red flags, a trained background specialist will help identify them before they are given a badge and a gun.

Like Michael Rosenfeld. 

Like Timothy Loehmann. 

This would be a County employee who reports to either HR or the Law Department within the County. The County would have contracts with all participating law enforcement agencies that want to take advantage of this step toward transparency and accountability. It could be a fee levied per investigation or a flat rate for those larger forces with turnover. The County would be providing a contracted service, but the municipality or police force would make the final determination. This staff person could also be a resource for municipalities with questions about what they can disclose about their former and current police officers under local, state, and federal law. They could do some trainings. They could testify in court about their steps in the hiring process.

It would be another small step to show the community that they want police-community relationships. The County cannot compel any police department to participate, but they can incentivize the hell out of it. And I believe it would eventually save monies for municipalities who avoid problematic hires and the related lawsuits, much less the bad cops who should not on any force.

Pennsylvania has more than 1200 law enforcement agencies, so ideally this should be a state level effort alongside other reforms to the criminal justice system. But there’s no reason Allegheny County can’t start locally. Take advantage of the criminal justice grants to invest in a clear solution to a troubling problem. The state is the only entity that can truly put a stop to the department jumping and to raising the bar for all law enforcement hires.

In my opinion, this should be a civilian and not a retired cop. It is more of an HR oriented skill set than a police skill set and the civilian status will reduce some of the perceived bias. It should be someone experienced, not a newbie insurance agency investigator who wants a public sector job – a person who has actual qualifications working for this type of agency elsewhere.

Would this tap into the proposed Allegheny County police civilian oversight board? Only if a complaint is filed that warrants a look at the hiring packet. This is about preventing unfit people from getting a chance to cause problems. It would be another tool of oversight and information gathering that would help the larger problem.

In a recent article about the proposed oversight board, Jasiri X gave The Pittsburgh Current some comments I found very thought-provoking.

Jasiri X, Activist and founder of the Pittsburgh anti-violence coalition 1Hood Media, is another supporter of the proposed ordinance. He views its function as a lens through which citizens can gauge how committed their police truly are to bettering community relationships.

“It actually allows us to have a conversation with a starting point to say, ‘If you want better community-police relations with Swissvale or Braddock or Duquesne or Wilkinsburg, then we need you to sign up to be involved in this [ordinance],” he said. “If [departments] choose not to, you’re actually sending a signal that you don’t want better police-community relations.”

Jasiri X sees a reluctance to participate in the partnership as a sign of departments wanting to cover up their unjust methods of policing. He also points out the insincerity of departments who claim they want to foster more positive relationships with those they police but are hesitant to sign onto the proposed ordinance.

“You’re policing my community where I live and my children live, and then you’re saying I’m not qualified?” he asked. “I’m not qualified to say to you, ‘I don’t like the way you’re policing my community,’ when I’m supposed to be the one you’re serving? That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

I have not (yet) met Jasiri X, but I think he’s a very strategic thinker who understands very clearly how the systems are tilted against the community. His petition about the FOP President is clear evidence that he knows how to get multiple moving parts working toward the arc of justice and a safer, healthier community for all of us.

This is just my wee suggestion on another aspect of the same end goal. One staff person perhaps funded with federal money to get started and demonstrate viable outcomes. Perhaps one administrative or clerical support person.

Full disclosure – my partner is a 20 year veteran civilian supervisor with the City of Pittsburgh Office of Municipal Investigations and a licensed attorney.  However, this is my idea that I came up with and asked her about. She said it was okay for me to share it because I am citizen, too. I am not suggesting she would be a candidate for this job, in fact, I would advise against it because the County doesn’t offer domestic partner benefits and because her skills & experience are better put to use investigating, not doing backgrounds. This post is not her opinion. If you want to know her opinion, you should ask her. She won’t answer but I do think system wide solutions could benefit from the input of seasoned investigators. That’s also just my opinion. I’m not really skilled at disclaimers.