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Pittsburgh area police Facebook group leads to amplified calls for independent oversight | WITF

Matt Wilson

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Democratic state Rep. Austin Davis, of McKeesport, called the posts “disturbing.”

  • An-Li Herring/WESA

(Pittsburgh) — A private Facebook group where local police officers reportedly made racist and transphobic comments has drawn swift condemnation, with critics saying it underscored the need for accountability.

The Associated Press reported Monday that the group “Pittsburgh Area Police Breakroom” has operated for nearly four years. Its more than 2,000 members included current and former officers and police chiefs, mostly from Allegheny County, according to the AP.

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The news outlet reported that some encouraged violence and harassment against Black Lives Matter protesters and law-enforcement personnel who supported them. It also discovered transphobic comments directed at former Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine, who is transgender.

Mount Pleasant Township Police Chief Lou McQuillan answers the door at the municipal building in Hickory, Pa., on Monday, March 15, 2021. McQuillan, who recently announced he is running for a vacant magisterial district judge post, was listed as one of four administrators of a private Facebook group called the Pittsburgh Area Police Breakroom. Many current and retired officers who are in the group spent the year criticizing chiefs that took a knee or officers who marched with Black Lives Matter protesters, who they called “terrorists,” or “thugs.”

Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

Mount Pleasant Township Police Chief Lou McQuillan answers the door at the municipal building in Hickory, Pa., on Monday, March 15, 2021. McQuillan, who recently announced he is running for a vacant magisterial district judge post, was listed as one of four administrators of a private Facebook group called the Pittsburgh Area Police Breakroom. Many current and retired officers who are in the group spent the year criticizing chiefs that took a knee or officers who marched with Black Lives Matter protesters, who they called “terrorists,” or “thugs.”

Democratic state Rep. Austin Davis, of McKeesport, called the posts “disturbing.”

“It clearly shows there is some bias, particularly among the officers who made those comments,” said Davis, who represents parts of West Mifflin, where an officer was named in the AP report.

“Furthermore, I think [the Facebook group] really highlights the need for citizen police review boards,” he added.

Davis has introduced a bill to require municipal forces to participate in such boards. It mirrors legislation that state Sen. Wayne Fontana, a Pittsburgh Democrat, has also proposed. Both bills would apply to all counties but Philadelphia, which has its own Police Advisory Commission. (That body is set to be replaced by a more powerful Citizens Police Oversight Commission, which Philadelphia voters approved in November.)

“We have so many police departments in Allegheny County,” Davis said. “Many of them are underfunded. Many of those officers are not trained at the same level. And so there needs to be a level of accountability.”

Allegheny County Council is debating whether to create a board that local police could join voluntarily. Current law does not allow the county to mandate the participation of local departments.

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Demonstrators carry signs as they gather in a street during a march in Pittsburgh, Saturday, May 30, 2020 to protest the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day, May 25.

Keith Srakocic / (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Demonstrators carry signs as they gather in a street during a march in Pittsburgh, Saturday, May 30, 2020 to protest the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day, May 25.

“The reality is, the departments that probably would opt into it are not the departments that probably need the oversight,” Davis said.

He acknowledged, however, that the GOP majority will likely block his and Fontana’s proposals. Both bills remain in committee.

Democratic Allegheny County Councilor DeWitt Walton, who has championed a countywide police review board, supports mandatory participation for municipal forces.

On Monday, he said he was not surprised by the revelations about the police Facebook group.

“It just creates the need for greater scrutiny and accountability for each municipality,” Walton said. Police officers “hold such sensitive and powerful positions that, if they’re going to be held in high regard and respect, then their behaviors also have to be beyond reproach.”

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