Police Seeking Residents’ Views

The Mt. Lebanon Police Department is forming a working group to bring together police leaders and a diverse group of residents. The group will meet several times a year to talk about how the MLPD can best serve all members of our community. If you are interested in being part of this important initiative, and you are a person of color or are a part of another diverse population, contact Chief Aaron Lauth at (412) 343-4016 or alauth@mtlebanon.org.

In the wake of several incidents nationwide, including the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, police conduct has come under increased scrutiny. The Mt. Lebanon Police Department has shared a sample of the questions it receives from residents.

A lot of police departments have said they will be part of the positive change to come. What changes do you have in mind?
Most importantly, we are listening and learning. We have never claimed to have all the answers. We are supportive of changes that are in the best interest of the safety of our community. Several of the changes that are being recommended to other departments are already in place or have been enacted at the MLPD. Some of these include progressive policies, hiring practices, training initiatives, technological investments and oversight. We want to be part of the solution and work together with the community to identify changes most appropriate for us. Each of us should beware of rumors and misinformation. The MLPD is dedicated to providing transparency and oversight into our practices to provide clarity in times of uncertainty.

What type of person is chosen to become a Mt. Lebanon police officer?
We expend large amounts of effort and resources to ensure we recruit and hire the best police officers to serve our community. We ensure our testing process is fair and completely free of bias. We are always open to improving our hiring practices to promote more diversity among our workforce and we welcome suggestions on how to better accomplish this important initiative.

Increasing diversity in the ranks of the MLPD remains a focus, however it continues to be a challenge that we have been addressing for several years. This challenge is not unique to the MLPD. Most police agencies across the country have difficulty in attracting candidates with diverse backgrounds. We are continuously expanding our recruitment efforts, including attending career fairs geared toward diverse populations and recruiting on social media. We will continue to focus efforts on ways to recruit more diverse candidates, while also adhering to a standardized, unbiased hiring process that attempts to identify the best people for the job regardless of demographics.

Once the top candidates are identified through the multi-level testing process, we spend a great deal of time completing background investigations on the applicants. We dig deep through their personal life by talking to family members, teachers, professors, guidance counselors, coaches, employers, coworkers, neighbors, boyfriends/girlfriends, ex-boyfriends/ex-girlfriends, and anyone else who may be able to provide us insight into the candidate’s character, values and integrity. If through our investigation we determine that a candidate is not a good fit for our police department and community, we simply pass over them and move on to the next candidate.

When we are ready to make a conditional offer of employment to a candidate, we send them for psychological and medical exams to determine their mental and physical fitness for performing the duties of a police officer. Only after the candidate satisfactorily passes these exams do we offer them full employment.

Once an officer is hired, the real training and evaluation begins. If newly hired officers have not already attended a state-certified police academy, their first six months of employment requires them to complete more than 850 hours of basic training to achieve their certification. After graduation from the academy, the next three to four months of employment involves the newly hired officer riding along with a field training officer who teaches and evaluates the new officer daily. Upon completion of all the tasks required in the field training program, the newly hired officer is released for solo patrol. During their first year of employment, newly hired officers are on probationary status, which requires constant oversight to ensure they meet our expectations. If at any time during probation a newly hired officer isn’t performing at a level that we expect, we are able to release them from duty.

But that’s in the beginning. How can I be sure the officers maintain the highest standards of excellence?
As an officer progresses through their career, we place high importance and focus on development and continuing education. All MLPD officers are required to attend at least 80 hours per year of in-service training on a variety of topics including communication skills, de-escalation, community policing, implicit bias, use of force, first aid, emergency vehicle operations, officer wellness, and critical incident response, as well as less-lethal and firearms qualifications. Most of our officers also attend outside training courses hosted regionally that are taught by expert instructors. In total, each MLPD officer averages more than 100 hours of developmental training on an annual basis.

During the past several years, our training goals have included communication skills, de-escalation, fair and impartial policing, implicit bias, community policing and use of force. Notably, we have specifically embraced de-escalation training; it is a requirement for all our officers. All MLPD officers have attended both mental health first aid for first responders training and crisis intervention team training. Both courses focus on recognition of individuals who are in crisis and how to best de-escalate situations involving those who need assistance. We are constantly searching for new and innovative training sessions that best address the aspects of policing that are most important for our community.

How do the officers know what is expected of them?
In addition to hiring practices and training, we also recognize the importance of having solid and up-to-date policies and procedures based on best practices in policing. We regularly review, research and update our policies and procedures, and we frequently test our officers on their knowledge of the standards by which we operate. If an officer violates an established policy, we hold them accountable by following a progressive discipline model that is appropriate to the level of the policy violation.

We have very strict measures when it comes to accountability. Our policies are constantly reviewed to ensure that they follow best practices that are recommended and approved through a variety of clearinghouses including the Department of Justice, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association and Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office.

In addition to a wide variety of policies that govern officers’ conduct and how we operate, we have specific directives in place that strictly prohibit racial profiling and bias-based policing.

As a method to further verify that our policies and procedures are up-to date and following the current legal standards and best practices, we have recently entered into an agreement with a public safety risk management solution called Lexipol.

Lexipol is a comprehensive policy and training solution developed and supported by public-sector attorneys, practitioners and subject matter experts. As part of our agreement, Lexipol will review our current policies as well as provide us with continuously updated, legally vetted policies and daily policy-related training. The fully developed, state-specific policies they provide are researched and written by subject matter experts and vetted by attorneys. Moving forward, Lexipol will help us ensure that our policies and procedures are continuously updated to reflect changes to case law and best practices.

Additionally, to ensure that our policies are meeting strict standards of professionalism, MLPD is pursuing accreditation through the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association Law Enforcement Accreditation Program.

Accreditation is a progressive and time-proven way of helping institutions evaluate and improve their overall performance. To ensure that we have the proper policies and procedures in place, a team of independent professionals will be assigned to verify that all applicable standards have been successfully implemented. The process will culminate with a decision by an authoritative body that the institution is worthy of accreditation.

What is your use of force policy? Can I have a copy?
Our use of force policy is one of our most critical documents. Our policy consistently recognizes the value, sanctity and preservation of human life.

A summary of our use of force policy is as follows:
• Prohibits chokeholds and other maneuvers that may lead to positional asphyxiation, unless deadly force is warranted.
• Requires de-escalation throughout as an alternative to force being used.
• Requires warning before shooting if possible [per Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985)].
• Requires that force used must be “objectively reasonable” based on the facts and circumstances confronting the officer(s) and judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene [per Graham v Connor 490 U.S. 386 (1989)].
• Requires duty to intervene if unreasonable force is observed. (This applies to other Mt. Lebanon police officers.)
• Bans shooting at moving vehicles, unless deadly force is warranted.
• Lists force options which are examples of force tactics and techniques available to police officers when force is used against a subject. Officers should use an appropriate force option based on subject behavior.
• Requires comprehensive reporting, specifically the use of a separate use of force reporting form and supervisory review.

In Mt. Lebanon, we are fortunate that our officers rarely must use force, but when they do, our policy guides officers to use the minimal amount of force necessary to gain compliance from the subject. On average, MLPD officers use force during 21 encounters annually. When considering that our officers handle approximately 21,000 calls for service each year, this shows that use of force incidents are rare. For the purposes of our policy and reporting requirements, a use of force is defined as any force necessary beyond compliant handcuffing.

In order to prevent the details of how we operate from getting into the hands of those who may have bad intentions, our specific MLPD policies and procedures are not available for release to the public. Our biggest fear is that an individual with ill intent could use the information that they obtain to assist them in causing harm to the public or a police officer.

The commission is engaged, involved and informed on a regular basis regarding the policies of the MLPD.

We can say with the utmost confidence, the force that was used against George Floyd in Minneapolis would be a clear violation of our policy and training on multiple levels.

What are the statistics for police contacts and arrests as they relate to race?
An analysis of the data regarding the race of individuals contacted by MLPD officers verifies that our officers are not engaged in patterns of racial profiling or other biased behaviors. During the past several years, on average, 13 percent of MLPD contacts are with persons whose race is Black, while 81 percent of those contacted are white. The demographics of Allegheny County show that roughly 13 percent of the population in our county is Black.

When considering these statistics, it should be noted that individuals
from neighborhoods all around Allegheny County travel through, visit or work in our community every day.

Who is in charge of overseeing the officers?
The Mt. Lebanon Police Department provides constant leadership on all shifts, a staffing priority that many other departments do not yet provide. We assign a ranking officer to each shift, who serves as the watch commander. In addition to overseeing the daily shift operations, watch commanders are responsible for establishing goals and evaluating the officers who are under their command. By having leadership and oversight at all times, watch commanders are able to recognize issues and immediately prevent them from becoming worse. Watch commanders report to the deputy chiefs and those deputy chiefs report to the chief. The chief reports to the municipal manager, who reports to the commission.

Do you have any other ways to monitor police performance and behavior?
At the MLPD, we embrace technology as an important part of our operations. We were one of the first police departments in our area to use body-worn cameras for all officers. We began using them shortly after the legislation (PA Act 22) changed in Pennsylvania clearing the way for their use by police officers. Our officers wear the cameras throughout their shifts to record their actions and encounters. In the event we receive a complaint about the actions of an officer, the video is reviewed by their supervisor to determine if there are any concerns that need to be addressed. In the majority of cases, the video vindicates the officer of misconduct accusations. This proves that our officers are doing the right thing. In addition to the video evidence that these recordings provide, we also use the recordings for training purposes for the benefit of all our personnel.

Do you use military-style equipment?
We have access to one piece of shared equipment, an armored vehicle that is used by our South Hills Area Council of Governments (SHACOG) Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT). This team is made up of specially trained police officers from 22 communities in the South Hills of Pittsburgh. Upon request, the team responds to incidents like active shooters, barricaded gunman, high-risk warrant services and other dangerous situations usually involving persons with firearms. Basically, SHACOG CIRT is the equivalent of a SWAT team for our South Hills communities.

The armored vehicle protects our officers from gunfire during the dangerous situations that they become involved in. The vehicle was donated to the SHACOG CIRT team by the Pennsylvania State Police when they purchased a new armored vehicle.

The SHACOG CIRT team averages approximately one callout/incident per month in their coverage area of 22 South Hills communities.

How are complaints handled?
We have very detailed policies and procedures regarding complaints about officers. All complaints are investigated. When a complaint is filed for something minor, either in-person, by phone, through email or social media, the on-duty supervisor immediately begins a supervisory review. During this review, the supervisor speaks with the complainant, witnesses, the officer(s) involved, as well as reviews the body-worn camera footage of the event. The supervisor documents this review and provides it to the deputy chief of police for further evaluation. The deputy chief determines if the actions of the officer(s) violate any of our established policies and procedures. The deputy chief makes a recommendation if the complaint is founded or unfounded based on the circumstances, and shares it with Police Chief Aaron Lauth for final review. If a complaint is founded, we follow the progressive discipline model for minor infractions.

If the allegation is of a serious nature, a personnel investigation commences immediately. Personnel investigations must involve due process rights mandated through contractual obligations and case law. Personnel investigations are performed directly by police administration with the assistance of the municipal labor counsel. These types of investigations are handled similarly to a criminal investigation and may prohibit the officer from returning to work until the investigation is resolved. Depending on the seriousness of the violation, disciplinary action could result in suspension or termination. The municipal manager is kept apprised of all employee investigations and disciplinary actions throughout the process.

To date, this process has been highly successful in identifying issues that need to be addressed and holding officers accountable for their actions, while also balancing their due process rights as employees. We receive very few complaints about our officers. On average, we receive about five complaints each year, which shows that our officers are treating people right and doing the right things.

To file a complaint about an officer, please call 911 and ask to speak to an on-duty supervisor. You may also email your complaint to  mlpdmgt@mtlebanon.org  or contact police administration during regular business hours at 412-343-4016. If you are not comfortable using this process, you may also address a complaint directly to the chief of police, the municipal manager, or any commissioner.