Pittsburgh police reform benefits from structural approach, PIIN leaders say

Posted by: Gordon on 1/26/2016

PIIN Public Safety Task Force
Top, PIIN kicked off its public safety task force campaign "From Marches to Measurables" in February 2015; bottom, Police Chief Cameron McLay reported back at the group's public meeting in November on progress made in restoring police-community trust. 

Leaders of Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, PIIN, began planning their campaign to improve public safety in Pittsburgh more than a year ago.

At the one-year anniversary of a kickoff public meeting where they called on the police and community to “Move from Marches to Measurables,” last February, they say the campaign has changed not just policing in Pittsburgh, but the way they look at their organizing work as well.

Rev. DeNeice Welch, chair of PIIN’s spiritual leaders caucus and current chair of Gamaliel’s Ntosake national women’s leadership table and Darlene Figgs, chair of the PIIN Public Safety Task Force, reflected on the campaign recently. 

At the end of 2014 PIIN leaders knew they needed to do something. Distrust between the police and community was at an all-time high. The ACLU was suing Pittsburgh’s police department because since 2001, only 23 out of about 530 police officers hired were African-American, or about 4%, although the city is 26% black. Their chief had recently gone to jail and the official overseeing police had recently resigned. News from St. Louis, New York, Cleveland and elsewhere was even worse.

“Our caucus was rocked by events,” Welch says. “We got a new public safety director, new chief of police and the events in Ferguson all happened at the same time.”

With input from the ACLU and a researcher at Pitt Law School they formulated six demands for Police Chief Chief Cameron McLay: 

  • Relationships: quarterly open, structured community forum every quarter beginning June 2015
  • Training: annual trainings to include implicit bias, racial reconciliation and procedural justice up and down within the bureau beginning in 2016
  • Recruitment and Hiring: measurable diversification of the Pittsburgh Police Bureau based on accurate demographics of the city of Pittsburgh beginning in 2016
  • Tracking: data collection and interpretation as a standard means to improve overall policing, police accountability and better policy, effective immediately
  • Policy: drafting Pittsburgh Police Bureau's policy on body worn cameras by June 2015
  • Accountability: participating in PIIN’s November 2015 Public Action Meeting to report back on progress

The chief agreed to work with them on the demands at that February meeting , but they knew implementation would be the hard part. What happened next, though, was the surprise: after a group of leaders and staff from PIIN attended Gamaliel’s Race and Power summit in June, they realized that they needed to look at the deeper structures and systems that had in many ways pitted the police department and the community against each other.

Focusing on structural racism

The Gamaliel Race and Power Summit in June opened Figgs’ and Welch’s eyes to a new way of looking at the campaign, one that focuses squarely on structural racism, instead of ignoring issues of race or addressing them obliquely. “When we were back at the February meeting we hadn’t been to Detroit,” Welch says. We were attacking the structures without knowing we were attacking the structures.

“Before the summit, we would have demanded that the police force recruit African-American candidates [for the force] and walked away,” Welch adds. “But now we know candidates of color cannot survive the culture that exists within the police force”—and it’s going to take training and constant monitoring to shift the culture as needed.

Figgs and Welch say they and other PIIN leaders and staff learned more about implicit bias and saw how some affiliates’ leaders were looking at themselves and their own organizations to interrogate their own backgrounds of internalized oppression and white privilege, and the impact of these influences on their work together.

While meetings with local police commanders proceeded throughout the year, the Public Safety Task Force leaders, a group of about 30 from across the city and suburbs about evenly divided between whites and people of color, organized a series of fishbowl conversations to look at themselves: white task force members would discuss a question amongst themselves while African-American members listened, then the two groups flipped roles. Facilitated debriefing sessions followed.

The work helped strengthen the group, and helped them to understand that just hiring more officers would not be enough to make the change they want. “The culture doesn’t support them being there,” Welch says. “As a result, over 50 percent of the African American officers are retiring and we have nobody in the pipeline to replace them. There’s a1907 civil service law that the police department and police union has been using to discriminate against people of color. Now we know to go after that – rather than just pushing for more recruits of color.”

Local meetings have been a success. When a Muslim cab driver was shot in the city on Thanksgiving, PIIN leaders were able to connect the head of the local Islamic Center to the right police commander thanks to the relationships they had built over the past year.

Another positive development last year came when the Department of Justice announced it would invest $1 million in the training the group had requested through its National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, one of 6 places in the country selected. Pittsburgh was chosen in part because the creators of the Justice program saw an emerging culture of community-police trust, they told PIIN leaders with whom they met.

In November, McLay had just one request when he attended the group’s public meeting where PIIN leadership declared a new organizational goal: not just to address organizing issues but to build the beloved community, and he had just one request: “Do I get to hold the microphone this time?” 

More remains to do. On some issues, like body cameras, they have had to take the pressure to the state Legislature, which slowed them down on that front. In general, the process of focusing on structures and addressing race explicitly takes longer. But they are also being more thorough. The Public Safety Task Force will press on, Figgs says: “We want this to be lasting, not a quick fix.”

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