Pittsburgh residents brought their concerns about police misconduct to City Council Tuesday during an open forum.
Concerned citizens brought up many issues, including a lack of diversity on the police force, racial profiling and overly aggressive policing in communities with high crime rates.
Rashad Byrdsong, president and CEO of the Homewood Community Empowerment Association, said law-abiding citizens of his community are stuck in a difficult situation.
“These type of shootings, homicide, crimes, in a lot of these distressed communities promote more aggressive policing,” Byrdsong said. “So we’re caught right in the middle between a lot of the gang activity and the more aggressive policing that’s going on in our community.”
Beth Pittinger, director of the Citizens Police Review Board, said she’s already fielded more complaints about police conduct this year than in all of last year.
“And once again, they focus predominately on their conduct toward the public and unbecoming conduct, which generally means their demeanor and how they speak to people,” Pittinger said. “Rude and discourteous seems to continue to plague us as a major problem.”
Pittinger, Byrdsong, and others also came to find and offer solutions, asking the city to help plan a conference to address issues of race-based police misconduct.
“The board would like to sponsor and facilitate with some of our partners … major conference that would involve having experts in both social reform and community responsibility and law enforcement,” Pittinger said.
Councilman Ricky Burgess was interested in the idea and said he plans to pursue it further.
Some at the forum, including City Council President Darlene Harris and former president of the Pittsburgh Fraternal Order of Police Dan O’Hara said most officers are not participating in any kind of misconduct or racial profiling.
“99.9 percent of our workforce always does the right thing,” O’Hara said. “Occasionally you’re going to have, in any large organizational structure, regardless of whether it’s the police or any business, you’ll have a problem employee or a situation occur, a misunderstanding with the public.”
Byrdsong was not buying this argument. He said the city needs to take a good look at the culture within the department.
“You can’t talk about the few bad apples being isolated from the culture that perpetuates the bad apples,” Byrdsong said. “The bad apples come from the bushel, so we have to actually look at the bushel, what’s going on there, that creates the bad apples."
Burgess held that the main problem with community-police relations in neighborhoods like Homewood is that there are two competing narratives at play, both of them false.
“You have the police officers who believe the community doesn’t like them, that the community disrespects them, that the community is complicit in the illegal drug trade and complicit in protecting family members and friends from the consequences of illegal activity,” he said. “I think on the other side you have the community who believes that the police hate them and the police disrespect them and … are trying to rob them of their constitutional rights through profiling.”
Burgess recently introduced three pieces of legislation to address the lack of community confidence in the police department, which he says has reached crisis level.
Two of the pieces would bring in experts from Kansas City to participate in a summit on how to address these issues, and a third would create a smartphone app that allows citizens to report police misconduct in real time.