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Pittsburgh's Citizen Police Review Board received the fewest number of complaints in it its history

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

After all the marches, protests and displays of solidarity in recent memory, is policing in America becoming more equitable or at least more accountable? In Pittsburgh, maybe. The Citizen Police Review Board there says that it has received the fewest number of complaints in its history. The executive director of the board is Beth Pittinger. She joins us now. Ms. Pittinger, thanks so much for being with us.

BETH PITTINGER: Thank you for having us.

SIMON: What do the most recent statistics say and tell you?

PITTINGER: Well, it's interesting in the last five years. We're about 50 complaints less than we had in 2018. And if we look at the interruption of COVID and the post-George Floyd protests, we saw a little bit of a bump there, but now we're back down to 220 - as of today, I believe 221.

SIMON: Has the nature of the complaints changed at all or shifted one way or another?

PITTINGER: Yes, and that's probably what's most important. The early years of the board, most of the complaints were related to the use of force. Today, close to 60% for the last six or seven years has been related solely to the demeanors of officers and what we would call unbecoming conduct, compared to the complaints of earlier years, which did indeed deal with force, warrantless activity, failure to report.

SIMON: Has this just shown that consciousness and good training can improve things? Because I don't want to in any way excuse any form of official misbehavior by a police officer, but there's a - you know, there's a big difference between mouthing off to somebody on the street and using force.

PITTINGER: Yes.

SIMON: What's been responsible for the change there?

PITTINGER: There, I think you're correct - that better training, better preparation - I think the training is important and the lawsuits and what we're seeing recently in the country where officers are being held accountable criminally.

SIMON: So all of the high-profile prosecutions and convictions may have had a deterrent effect?

PITTINGER: Yes, I think so. I think departments have recognized that they have a duty to assure that these officers, when they go out, know what's OK and what's not OK. And now we're seeing where some departments are eliminating any prerequisite education for police officers. So here in the city, there's an intention to eliminate the 60 college credit requirement. That doesn't seem like a lot, but when you look at the value of attaining 60 credits or the equivalent through life experience, you have a person who's accepted a responsibility for attaining the qualification for a job they want. They've demonstrated the personal discipline. They've gone through the rigors of education. They've developed a new perspective, you would hope, but a more informed perspective on the human condition. When you're just coming out of high school and you want to be a cop, well, I'm not sure that that's appropriate.

SIMON: As I understand it, Ms. Pittinger, this - the review board is not a new idea. It didn't come after the deaths of Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown but in 1997, when there were allegations of civil rights violations. How did you go about to try and make that relationship work between the board and the city?

PITTINGER: Oh, I'd say it's still in progress. We had some issues, I guess, establishing our identity and our independence from the local political structure. And to some degree, that still remains, I think, a bit of a challenge, but we serve as a check and a balance where the usual traditional checks and balances are a little bit out of sync.

SIMON: We might need to explain to a national audience. Pittsburgh - and I say this as a Chicagoan - we're not talking about a Republican political structure...

PITTINGER: No.

SIMON: ...In Pittsburgh but Democratic authority that stretches back for decades.

PITTINGER: Yes, absolutely. Generations. And so that introduces a whole other interesting dynamic to the local culture related to the values of the traditional Democrats and then the progressive Democrats and the socialist Democrats. You know, you have all of those competing interests. Some don't want police at all. Some want police to do what they tell them to do, and others are traditionalists. And you have traditional expectation of law enforcement, as - you know, as a police department. Our board, of course, has, I think, upheld more traditional values, but there are expectations that the board has that what the local police department does and what their policies and procedures direct them to do would be lawful, consistent, procedurally just. And that's the key. Here in Pittsburgh, I think we have at least arrived at a place of mutual respect between the board and the Bureau of Police.

SIMON: Beth Pittinger is executive director of Pittsburgh Citizen's Police Review Board. Thank you so much for being with us.

PITTINGER: Scott, thank you. And I hope maybe over the years, we can chat again as things evolve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.