Citizens In High-Crime Areas Have Strong Feelings About Pittsburgh Police

Apr 18, 2017

Americans who live in high-crime neighborhoods often get portrayed as anti-police, but an Urban Institute study released in February shows something different: strong respect for the law and a willingness to help with public safety.

On this week’s episode of 90.5 WESA’s Criminal Injustice podcast, University of Pittsburgh law professor and host David Harris talked to Pittsburgh-based journalist Brentin Mock, who said the justice department has it all wrong about citizens’ willingness to help.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

DAVID HARRIS: Your article in CityLab talks about a study by the Urban Institute, which looked at six cities, including Pittsburgh, on community attitudes toward the police. How did that research jibe with what you've seen here, since you're based in Pittsburgh?

BRENTIN MOCK: I've seen some really strong community partnerships with the police department here in Pittsburgh. It's not a perfect partnership, but it's a lot stronger than I've seen in other cities. And of course Pittsburgh is the first city that fell under a U.S. Justice Department consent decree in 1997 – that being the agreement between the U.S. Justice Department and the Pittsburgh Police Department declaring that we will work to resolve problems between our department and the community over a certain period of time.

HARRIS: The general narrative out there is that people who live in high-crime areas are anti-police. But your article points to something very different in the Urban Institute study. What was that?

MOCK: People in these specific communities are very eager to partner with police when it comes to solving crimes and solving issues in their communities. It simultaneously shows that they are often wary of police, but only in terms of those police who are treating them unfairly, who are committing violence against them and who are not protecting and serving them.

HARRIS: So particular officers, not the police in general?

MOCK: Right. A large majority of police do not believe that the civilians that they work with share their values. We see a photo negative of that from the Urban Institute study, which shows that a very slight minority – only a third – of people in these communities believe that the police share their values. And so what we find is that there is a strong disconnect. I think that can be explained mainly from the long history of, well, there's no other way to say it – brutality and violence and unfair enforcement of the law against black communities going back decades.

HARRIS: One of the things that you wrote about in your article was that 90 percent of police officers and 80 percent of the general public feel that protests against police in recent years are fed by anti-police bias. What's your take on that?

MOCK: To summarize it as anti-police bias is simplifying it. I believe that the people who engage in these marches, most of them, are marching specifically against the actions of rogue police, against overly aggressive police, overzealous police, you know, violent police. Specifically, police who are violent against people in black communities. It's not an anti-police bias, it's an anti-rogue police bias.

HARRIS: And seven of 10 people in the highest crime areas here in Pittsburgh and nationally -- they support the police and want to work with the police? Isn't that correct?

MOCK: Yes. The research from the Urban Institute study show that anywhere from two-thirds to 70 percent of people in the communities that they surveyed are willing to partner with police in terms of reporting crimes, attending community meetings with police and even working with police to help solve crimes.

HARRIS: How's the new administration in Washington, both nationally and within the U.S. Justice Department specifically, how are they feeding into this or fighting against it?

MOCK: The Trump administration seems to believe that there is a widespread anti-police bias among black communities in general, and hence, they are looking to bring back policies such as stop-and-frisk or even getting rid of the consent decrees or any kind of police reforms that have been used in the past to help rein in aggressive policing and it completely goes against what we are seeing from the Urban Institute study.

You can hear more about Brentin Mock and his reporting on this week’s episode of WESA’s Criminal Injustice podcast. Subscribe on iTunes, though your favorite podcast app and at criminalinjusticepodcast.com.