Tensions ran high Tuesday as members of Pittsburgh City Council met to wrestle with the issue of community-police relations.
Up for discussion were three bills sponsored by Councilman Ricky Burgess, one of which would authorize the city to spend up to $150,000 on a police-community partnership program called Unleashing Respect Project, or URP.
URP co-founders Charles Huth and Jack Colwell gave a presentation to City Council and invited guests, including Acting Police Chief Regina McDonald and immediate past president of the Pittsburgh Fraternal Order of Police Dan O’Hara.
Huth is a Sergeant with the Kansas City, Missouri Police Department and is team leader for the department’s SWAT team. Colwell is a retired KCPD officer and currently works as Direct of Law Enforcement Services for the consulting firm Arbinger. Huth also works as a Senior Consultant at Arbinger and said the company’s methods and tactics heavily influenced the creation of URP.
According to Huth and Colwell, URP is primarily about practicing what they describe as "unconditional respect" for community members.
Huth said that before the URP program, his unit received more complaints than any other unit in the KCPD. Since implementing the URP program six years ago, he said his unit went a full three years without receiving a complaint.
“We have to start providing unconditional respect to the people that we deal with," Huth said. "We have got to start changing the way we look at people, changing the way we behave. It’s an imperative, and I kind of put out an edict to my squad that this was necessary that we do this 180 (degree) shift.”
McDonald was unimpressed and said that Burgess’s bill was “improper.”
“I think the fairer way of doing it would have been to approach … the police bureau, and have an open discussion of what your concerns are, and invite us to participate in the resolution,” McDonald said.
McDonald said that the bureau is in the midst of collecting surveys from both police officers and community members to find out what needs are not currently being met.
She said implementing any training program before the survey data is compiled would be premature.
“The information we receive from our surveys and study will be the basis of what training needs we identify,” McDonald said. “Together we can work on the process of identifying who the trainer should be and when we can implement it.”
McDonald went on to say that if the training program was implemented, it would likely be unsuccessful.
“I know I resent it, I know the command staff resents it, as well as the training staff,” McDonald said. “You can’t go in and expect training to be effective with that background, that atmosphere.”
Dan O’Hara, immediate past president of the Fraternal Order of Police, agreed with McDonald, and described the URP program as a waste of money.
“At this time to spend $150,000 on any training without knowing what our goals are here or what our needs are is just insane,” O’Hara said.
Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith said she believes the new mayor and police chief should be the ones setting the agenda for the Bureau of Police, not City Council. She also said she would not vote on the legislation until the new mayor and chief are in place.
Kail-Smith said she thought some people at the table were more concerned about self-preservation than about real results.
“I would like to see real results, and I’d like to see the real results not only for the police department, but also for the youth in the community, because I think they’re being failed miserably,” Kail-Smith said.
Burgess said he believes police-community relations are at a crisis level in black communities, much as he has said in previous meetings on the issue.
“This is not OK; this is not business as usual,” Burgess said. “We are incident away from something significant and severe happening, I believe.”
Another piece of legislation discussed Tuesday would create a mobile application to allow citizens to publicly report on interactions with city employees, including police. The third bill would authorize the Citizen Police Review Board, or CPRB, to spend up to $20,000 organizing a police-community relations summit in Pittsburgh.
“We have to move toward a more community-oriented (model of policing),” said Beth Pittinger, director of the CPRB. “I don’t mean in the old traditional model that people associate with community oriented policing … but I mean that the community is the priority and that we are able to deal with issues presented in the community in a humanistic way.”