In April 2021, Allegheny County Council established an Independent Police Review Board [IPRB] to review public complaints, potentially against more than 100 police departments in Allegheny County. Three years on, the board is now “actively running,” Chair Justin Leavitt Pearl said.

But at its April 17 quarterly meeting, the efficacy of the board — which currently has two vacant seats and has taken zero action on the seven public complaints received this year — came into question.

“Who are we working for?” Rev. Regina Ragin-Dykes asked at the meeting, expressing confusion over the scope of the board’s oversight.

While the IPRB was intended to oversee the county’s police forces outside of Pittsburgh, which has its own review board, only the Allegheny County police is mandatorily covered. County police primarily patrol parks and the airport, and sometimes assist municipal departments.

Municipal police forces only fall under the board’s oversight if they opt in, and so far none have.

As a result, the board has been unable to take action on any of the nine public complaints so far  submitted through its online form. Complaints about incidents that occurred more than 180 days prior or in a municipality outside of the board’s jurisdiction are not in its purview. 

“So we’re very, very limited,” Ragin-Dykes said.

Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam, who helped launch the review board, said she has been in conversation with municipalities since the board’s inception. Responses from municipalities have been varied, Hallam said, but there are a “small number” that have been waiting until the board was fully functioning before making a decision to opt in.

“But now it’s at the point where it is, and the architecture and structure has been created,” Hallam said. “Now really is the time where I expect those conversations to hopefully turn from informal conversations to action-based conversations.”

What’s in it for municipalities?

Dwight Boddorf, borough manager for Tarentum, told Rtvsrece that his municipality has not had any discussion about opting in, either internally or with the council. “The municipalities have not been reached out to,” Boddorf said. “Some folks are aware of [the board] because they saw it in the paper but no official letter of ‘this is what it is, interests, benefits,’ any type of that has actually gone out to the municipalities.”

Boddorf served on the board for six months before resigning in June due to its conflict with his employment by Tarentum. He recalled that in his time on the board, members discussed the possibility of reaching out to municipalities but did not come to a formal decision on “how, why, when or who would be responsible” for outreach.

Justin Leavitt Pearl stands in his office doorway at Carlow University, where he works as Director for the Atkins Center for Ethics, on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022. Flyers of events he has orchestrated during his time at Carlow can be seen to the left. (Photo by Lilly Kubit/Rtvsrece)
Justin Leavitt Pearl at Carlow University, on Sept. 8, 2022. He now chairs the Allegheny County Independent Police Review Board. (Photo by Lilly Kubit/Rtvsrece)

The board’s inability to compel municipal participation is a consequence of weak provisions in the legislation that established it, according to Hallam. She advocated for an earlier version of the ordinance that held out the possibility of unspecified funding, training or other assistance to municipalities that opt into coverage by the board.

“This is definitely a watered down version of the police review board that [former] Councilmember [Olivia] Bennett and I envisioned,” Hallam said.

Hallam said in the future, she hopes to see the ordinance modified to include an incentive to opt in or disincentive not to, which she did not detail. Without that, outreach is left to county officials and the board.

Empty seats, unofficial motions

The board has nine seats; four appointed by county council, four appointed by the county executive and the final seat jointly appointed by both. In 2022, eight of those seats were filled, enough for the board to begin work. Since then, however, three members have left, and only one of those vacancies has been filled.

The current members are Pearl, Ragin-Dykes, Richard Garland, Stacey Hawthorne, Keith Murphy, Lynn Banaszak and Mark Bibro, who was jointly appointed by the executive and council in July 2023. Four out of seven members — Pearl, Ragin-Dykes, Garland and Hawthorne — were present at Wednesday’s meeting. The board needs five members — a majority out of the nine seats — to make quorum.

Dennis Biondo, a county attorney working with the board, said the vacancies were problematic.

“You need to get these people appointed,” Biondo said. “And that’s what we talked about in January.”

Both of the vacancies are county executive appointments, filling the seats of former county police Superintendent Coleman McDonough and investigator Robert Meinert. Former County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who made the original four appointments, left the reappointments to the new administration under Executive Sara Innamorato, according to Pearl.

Abigail Gardner, the county spokesperson, told Rtvsrece that the county plans to announce new appointees in the coming weeks.

“I am happy that the board did their due diligence to get it up and running. I'm happy that they have their foundations in place, and they're ready to get to work,” Hallam said. “But of course, I'm unhappy that we haven’t had local municipalities beating down our door begging us to let them start, let them opt in to this. And so that's really where the effort needs to go right now, to make this what it was supposed to be.”

Pearl also implored the other members to work on outreach to municipalities, although the path toward that remained murky. The board has been working toward publication of a pamphlet since November, and members talked of attending community meetings and conducting individual outreach.

Even the discussion at the quarterly meeting ended up being moot, with just four of the required minimum of five members present.

“Technically we don’t have quorum, so unofficial motion to adjourn,” Pearl said to laughs from the other members.

Miranda Jeyaretnam is an editorial intern at Rtvsrece and can be reached at miranda@rtvsrece.com.

This story was fact-checked by Rich Lord.

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