Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sunday, March 9, 1997



PAGE:   E-1

Residents of Pittsburgh may soon be asked to vote on a referendum to establish a civilian police review board. The issue of police accountability is a delicate and emotional topic for many individuals and organizations on both sides of the blue line.And there are few easy answers. Rather, many of the key points turn on matters of subtle detail. For instance, consider the following:

* Have civilian review boards been effective in other cities? What features have enabled boards to function smoothly? For the boards that have poor track records, why have they failed? What can be done to prevent similar problems from bedeviling a civilian review board here?

* What internal reforms have been implemented already by the Pittsburgh police? Are these reforms enough to render a civilian review board unnecessary?

* Does citizen oversight of police complement or undermine the effectiveness of law enforcement?

* How does a civilian review board compare with other grass-roots strategies for assuring police accountability, such as the ACLU's class-action lawsuit?

* Is a civilian review board with only symbolic power worth having? Is it important to create a comfortable

environment for complaints to be leveled against abusive police practices, even though such complaints might not lead to disciplinary action?

Lacking access to detailed data, many voters of Pittsburgh may not be able to engage these questions from an

informed perspective. The William Pitt Debating Union would like to change that.

A student group at the University of Pittsburgh, WPDU has an educational and public-interest mission. Students pursue this dual mission by organizing, promoting and participating in public debates on pressing controversies affecting the Pittsburgh community. On Feb. 13, six students from the WPDU conducted a public debate on the question ``Should Pittsburgh Adopt a Citizen Review Board?''

On March 19, the WPDU is planning a follow-up debate. However, this time, we are inviting nonstudent advocates to join us. Specifically, we are seeking advocates from City Council, the activist community, the mayor's office, the police department and the Fraternal Order of Police. We believe it is incumbent for parties to support and defend their arguments in public forums. By joining together in constructive debating, proponents and opponents could make significant contributions to public understanding.

The debate will be begin at 7 p.m. in room P1 of Forbes Quadrangle, just off the corner of Forbes Avenue and Bigelow Boulevard in Oakland. The format of the debate will encourage audience participation. The March 23 Forum section will contain a debate summary, prepared by WPDU members.

MEMO:   Gordon Mitchell is assistant professor of communication and director of debate at the University of Pittsburgh. Kelly Happe is assistant director of debate and a Ph.D. student in Pitt's Department of Communication. Contact WPDU at 624-8531 or via e-mail at