The increasingly fraught relationship between Pittsburgh’s mayor and the city’s police union has likely hit a new low, with contract talks between the two sides recently devolving into a series of personal attacks and sharp-edged accusations.
A recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article detailing the situation says a Feb. 9 meeting between Mayor Bill Peduto, his chief of staff and police union representatives ended with Peduto walking out amid a debate about proposed cost-saving measures for the city’s police force.
Per the Post-Gazette:
At one point in the meeting, a union representative asked the mayor whether he wanted to “pay for concrete,” a reference to bike lanes, or “human beings.” After that, the mayor walked out, leaving union representatives to speak with his chief of staff.
Peduto’s chief of staff, Kevin Acklin, later told the paper that the meeting had turned unproductive.
In the aftermath, Acklin said union president Robert Swartzwelder, of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge No. 1, needed a “course in leadership and perhaps one in anger management.” Acklin also said the city’s police officers were being ill-served by union officials like Swartzwelder.
“We’ve shown nothing but good faith from the very beginning,” Acklin added. “They’ve shown nothing but a willingness to fight.”
Swartzwelder responded, saying it was “interesting [Acklin] would make such a childish immature remark.” He also accused the Peduto administration of “threatening to bury us in court,” the Post-Gazette explained.
A spokesman for the mayor later confirmed the accuracy of the Post-Gazette report in an email to PennLive.
But the dust-up is just the latest of its kind, as Peduto’s relationship with the city’s police force continues to deteriorate years into his first term — and with the mayor now seeking re-election to a second.
There was the public struggle over Peduto’s appointment of the reform-minded Cameron McLay as the city’s chief of police in 2014. The pick was widely resisted by the department’s union, as well as some of its rank-and-file members. McLay later resigned the post after just two years in charge, although he denied internal pushback as the reason.
There was also Peduto’s public confrontation with a police commander at an anti-Trump rally late last year. Additionally, there have been reports of disparaging remarks made against him by city officers in issuing citations.
Some have traced the tension back to the mayor’s description of Pittsburgh police bureau culture as “mediocrity at best and corruption at worst,” shortly after taking office in 2014. Peduto has since apologized for the comment, which he made while noting the imprisonment of former police Chief Nate Harper and anecdotal evidence of “favoritism and cronyism” within the department, TribLive.com reported.
In the years since, Peduto has continued to champion progressive ideals and law enforcement reforms that some within the police department have viewed as hostile and capable of undermining public support.
The FOP and firefighters union did not endorse Peduto during his 2013 campaign.
There is also ongoing legal action taken against the city by the police union.
Tim McNulty, a spokesman for the mayor, told PennLive Monday that this includes the FOP’s appeal of an arbitration panel’s decision on their contract with the city. It also includes an ongoing review of the city’s residency requirement for police by the state Supreme Court.
In light of the Feb. 9 breakdown in informal contract talks between the mayor’s office and police union, McNulty said the mayor does not expect to resume those talks anytime soon. He cited the “behavior of the FOP president [Swartzwelder]” as the reason for this.
An attempt by PennLive to contact FOP spokespeople on Monday was immediately unsuccessful.