In October 1995, a Black businessman was driving a Jaguar sedan through the Pittsburgh suburb of Brentwood when he was stopped by police—within 10 minutes he was beaten and choked to death. His name was Jonny Gammage, and his “crime” was driving while Black.
Only three of the five White police officers involved were charged in his death, and after third-degree murder and official oppression charges were dropped, two all-White juries from Chester and Lackawanna counties acquitted the officers of the remaining involuntary manslaughter charge.
Gammage’s death led to the creation of Western Pennsylvania’s first Civilian Police Review Board to oversee all charges of police brutality or abuse during interactions with the public—but only in the City of Pittsburgh. The police departments patrolling Brentwood and 129 other Allegheny County municipalities remained exempt from civilian oversight.
But the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Antwon Rose II by East Pittsburgh police Officer Michael Rosfeld in June may change all that. Activists like Tim Stevens and Khalid Raheem who’ve been on the front lines in the battle against police oppression since the Gammage death are hopeful Rose’s killing can yield something positive—an Allegheny County Civilian Police Review Board.
“When District Attorney Stephen Zappala said during his press conference (charging Officer Rosfeld with homicide) that East Pittsburgh police has no procedures in place covering use of force, that was a major statement,” said Stevens. “Countywide oversight could remedy that with a uniform set of protocols that every department adheres to.”
Since Zappala’s press conference on June 27, the move toward a County Civilian Police Review Board has proceeded on several fronts, most notably with County Councilmen DeWitt Walton and Paul Klein taking the lead.
On July 10, they pushed through legislation, in a contentious 8-6 vote, that allowed the scheduling of four meetings to gather input to help them draft an ordinance to create the review board. Those meetings have been held and though Walton had planned to submit the draft at the first December meeting, he has had to push it back.
“This has become more involved and detailed as we’ve gone forward. We’re now creating a menu of options—the possible ‘what ifs’—and it’s taking longer than I anticipated,” he said.
“We need to present a comprehensive document that is as transparent as possible, so we protect those who lodge complaints as well as the respondents, while creating entity that has the ability to determine the facts and make recommendations for further action. And it has to have the appropriate resources—both capital and human—to determine what did or did not occur.”
Even if such a county law is passed, the board it creates would only have jurisdiction over Allegheny County Police. Every other municipal force would have to voluntarily submit to the board’s oversight.
Walton said he has continued to speak with Raheem and members of the Committee for a County Civilian Review Board, including co-chair Fawn Walker-Montgomery, who outlined their recommendations for the board’s structure at a recent meeting in the Hill District.
“It should have broad jurisdiction and investigative and subpoena powers to process complaints and recommend policy,” said Raheem.
“As for composition it should mirror County Council with 15 members, one from each of the 13 council districts and two at large. They should also be weighted towards those disproportionally effected by police misconduct—Blacks, youth and members of the LGBTQ community, and like Pittsburgh’s board, it should include retired law enforcement officers.”
Walker-Montgomery, who pushed attendance at all of Walton’s public meetings through her Take Action Mon Valley organization’s website, is adamant about the need for a countywide review board.
“When Jonny Gammage was killed in Brentwood, the only referendum was in Pittsburgh,” she said. “These small-town departments are run like the wild, wild west—and we have to live there. A lot of these killings are in small towns with little or no accountability,” she told the New Pittsburgh Courier.
While these actions were taking place at the county and grassroots level, in Harrisburg state legislators are pushing initiatives to support a county board’s creation and make it advantageous for municipal departments outside of Pittsburgh to join.
State Reps. Austin Davis, Ed Gainey and Jake Wheatley are backing legislation to mandate additional certifications for police beyond what is currently required.
In the state senate, Sen. Paul Costa is pushing legislation that would provide additional resources, training and equipment for departments that opt in. Senator Wayne Fontana is opting for the stick rather than the carrot with legislation that would mandate all Allegheny County municipal departments outside of Pittsburgh submit to county review board oversight.
Walton said that may not be necessary.
“We have several municipalities that have said, if we can pass this, they are waiting to sign on, regardless of what the state does,” he told the Courier. “They think it’s the right thing to do because it best protects their municipalities and residents at large.”
But therein lies the challenge, Walton said—the committee his ordinance is assigned to will have to craft legislation that can pass a council vote.
“Ultimately, we’re going to have to present a document that can generate majority support, that protects the citizens and doesn’t put law enforcement in impractical positions as well,” he said. “The overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers are dedicated to doing the best job they can. But a small minority is not—and it has to be dealt with in a clear and concise manner.”
And if County Council cannot craft and pass such legislation, what then?
“We’ll do it ourselves,” an emphatic Raheem said. “We’re in the process of creating a People’s Police Review Board, crafted along the lines we outlined in our recommendations. It would process complaints and take them to the proper district magistrate.”
Longtime civil rights activist Mel Packer said such an idea has merit and has worked in the past.
“It’s like what the (Black) Panthers did with their ambulance and school lunch programs,” he said. “When the dominant system fails to meet your needs, you create a parallel system that does.”
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