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Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights...Pittsburgh?

Posted by Elwin Green on July 13, 2016 at 11:50 AM

Alton Sterling (l) and Philando Castile (r) were killed by police officers in Baton Rouge, LA and Falcon Heights, Minn. last week.

I'm going to make a pitch here. But first, a story:

I was out late, and stopped at a 24-hour convenience store around 3 a.m. to use the restroom and possibly grab a snack.

A younger Black man — I’d say early 30s — came into the restroom after me. We were both washing our hands when he began telling me about an encounter that he had just had with some police officers.

Actually, he said a lot less about the encounter itself than he did about how he felt about the encounter. He never said exactly what happened. But whatever it was, was so humiliating, so infuriating, that he fought to hold back tears as he talked about how police need to change their treatment of Black men, and the consequences that could result if they didn't.

I wanted to give him a hug that would grant him permission to release his tears. My attempt to do that felt awkward when it didn’t work.

We eventually parted (“I'm going to go back to my car and cry some more."). We did not exchange personal info, and I have not seen him again.


In the wake of the police killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., it's natural for citizens across the country to ask, “Will it happen here?” Will the next horrific instance of bad policing resulting in the death of an unarmed citizen happen in my city, in my neighborhood?

Living in Pittsburgh, in Homewood, my answer is, “I don't think so.”

Here's why:

The string of killings of Black men and boys by police officers that we have seen over the past two years represent and illustrate defects in America’s police departments — defects in training that allow officers to view Black suspects as more threatening than others, or even as less human, and defects in culture that allow officers with repeated complaints of excessive force to continue without correction or discipline.

Since his arrival in September 2014, Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay has consistently voiced a commitment to eliminating any such defects in the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, and to lift the Bureau to a higher standard of policing.

He now has a training program in place to lift the Bureau to that higher standard. Based on a curriculum offered by the International Association of the Chiefs of Police, the program is designed to place values-based decision-making at the core of the Bureau's operations and individual officer's behavior.

Part of what that involves officers learning to think about their own thinking — to step beyond knee-jerk responses, even in tense situations, to access their higher brain functions.

That alone could help to prevent unnecessary citizen deaths.

A second aspect of change that is happening under McLay's command is that of community relations — going beyond simple public relations to the development of genuine relationships with the communities.

In Zone 5, Commander Jason Lando has made communicating and relationship building priorities. Each week, he emails a report of police activity to anyone who wants it. (To get on the list, email him at [email protected]). He also sends occasional bulletins such as one sent Saturday in response to the Sterling and Castile shootings as well as the killing of Dallas police officers. In it, he reminded readers of Zone 5’s relationship building efforts.

“We have initiatives such as ‘Raising Readers Together’ where our officers read books to young children at Willie T's Barber Shop in Homewood.” he wrote. “We regularly engage in small-group meetings between our officers and teenagers from the community, to help each of us understand the needs of the other. Our officers work with the youth football leagues, stopping by after practice and having pizza with the kids, allowing them to see police officers in a non-threatening manner.”

When officers engage in that kind of work, it becomes impossible for them to view residents generically as thugs, or for residents to view officers generically as pigs.

The key word there is “work.” It's not magic. It is work, and work takes time. The total elimination of bad, racist policing will not happen overnight. In the meantime, part of what needs to happen is that when bad policing does occur, citizens need to report it.

Here, Pittsburgh has an advantage over many other cities. In most cities, a report of officer misconduct is subject to an internal investigation only. Here, we have an independent agency tasked with investigating complaints against officers — the Citizen Police Review Board.

Created in 1997, the Board does not have the power to issue disciplinary actions against officers, and for that reason some view it as toothless. But its power to subpoena, to hear testimony and to investigate means that when it makes recommendations regarding disciplinary action, those recommendations are based on a preponderance of evidence, including evidence that otherwise might not have been gathered.

I am on the Board, and I encourage citizens throughout Pittsburgh, but especially my Homewood neighbors, to make greater use of us.

When you believe that an officer's behavior is out of line, don’t just complain. When I had my late-night encounter with the young man in the convenience store, I tried to encourage him to report the incident to the Citizen Police Review Board, but I think he was too caught up in his feelings to hear me well. I regret that, and wish that he had given us the opportunity to do what we can.

Your reporting of police misconduct need not begin and end with the Citizen Police Review Board. You can also report it to a second agency, the Alliance for Police Accountability. The Alliance is a local nonprofit that began as an informal group of citizens advocating on behalf of Jordan Miles after he was beaten by undercover police officers in 2010. It has grown to provide ongoing support for those whom it considers victims of police misconduct, as well as strengthening police-community relations.

While the Citizen Police Review Board is limited to seven members, chosen by the Mayor and by City Council, anyone can participate in the work of the Alliance. Visit www.apapgh.org to learn how.

The horrors of last week can make one feel that America has turned a dark corner, and that things will inevitably get worse. But in Pittsburgh, in Homewood, we are at a time when every one of us can be involved in helping to making things better. Let's not waste it.


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A print version of this piece appears in the July 14 - 20 issue of Print, Pittsburgh's East End newspaper. Pick up your copy TODAY at the Frankstown Road Giant Eagle, 9001 Frankstown Road, then SUBSCRIBE  for more of Homewood Nation and other East End news!


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The Homewood Chronicles

Oct. 2005 - March 2010

Reports from a community in transition

In October 2005, after a bullet came through his living room window, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Elwin Green began writing "My Homewood," the first blog on the P-G's website. For 4 1/2 years, "My Homewood" shared stories of tragedy and beauty, of perplexity and hope - stories that live again in "The Homewood Chronicles."

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