Anger at Pittsburgh police fueled a packed Pittsburgh City Council hearing on police residency requirements Thursday, with testimony hitting testy police relations with black residents as much as it did debates on where police should live.
"We are being policed as if we are in a war zone," testified Valerie Lauw, the president of the citizen council in Northview Heights, a public housing development. "We know there are no black police coming to Northview to do anything. There are white people coming as officers to harass and arrest."
The Fraternal Order of Police is in contract arbitration seeking to lift requirements that officers -- like other taxpayer-supported city employees -- live within the city limits. Wording in a state law saying Pittsburgh officers "shall" live in the city was amended in October to say they "may" reside in the city limits, opening up the contract challenge to the police union.
In an attempt to outflank the contract move, council is considering a November ballot question adding the requirements to the city's home rule charter. If approved the charter change may be subject to legal battles, but in the meantime it had the full support of a largely black, full-house crowd that traveled to Grant Street to speak out on a baking summer afternoon.
Not a single person at the hourlong hearing spoke out against the residency requirement, with most complaining about police behavior in their neighborhoods and others saying officers pulling up stakes would only make bad community relations worse. More than 60 African-American schoolchildren from an East End summer camp added to the chorus, many of them stepping to the microphone to say they have been harassed by members of a largely white police force.
Angel Renee Williamson-Wheat, 15, of Lincoln-Lemington said her mother just retired from the force and witnessed how she had a positive impact on the neighborhood.
"I know for a fact that having my mother there as a police officer, she was able to help police in the area help keep kids safe," said the rising sophomore at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School. "We're the ones who are the future and you need us to be safe so we can continue to build up the city. If you're just letting us die because the police don't want to live in the city, what are we going to do?"
Kristy Frisco, 35, of Brighton Heights also grew up a child of a retired officer and is married to a city firefighter.
"When it is your neighborhood, your neighbors, your city you are serving, the commitment to your career inevitably becomes more than a job, it becomes a way of life," she said.
The icily air-conditioned atmosphere within council chambers was permeated by two recent events: a Florida jury's acquittal Saturday of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in the February 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, and the since-withdrawn Pittsburgh police arrest three weeks ago of a black teacher outside a meeting on community-police relations in Homewood. There were no police present, other than one black officer quietly serving as council's sergeant-of-arms.
Activist Rashad Byrdsong of Homewood called for the federal government to once again place police behavior under the watch of a consent decree, as it was in the 1990s.
"I don't think there's anyone in the city now who can control the police, from the mayor on down to the chiefs," he said.
Tim Stevens, the president of the Black Political Empowerment Project, cited police statistics from 2001-09 showing only 23 of 349 police recruits from the period were African-American. That pool of minority applicants would only get smaller if police could live in the suburbs, he argued.
"Even with the current requirement that Pittsburgh police officers be required to live in the city of Pittsburgh, we've had very appalling statistics," Mr. Stevens said.
City council is largely barred from getting involved in contract disputes, and state Act 111 oversees police contracts, so it is unclear if the residency referendum could be enforced if approved by voters. FOP Lodge 1 president Mike LaPorte said Thursday his union is focusing only on the contract arbitration -- officers last testified June 28 and the city is scheduled to make its rebuttal before three arbitrators in late September.
Police argue the city residency requirement is anti-competitive: The force loses recruits and veterans to suburbs affording better pay, where their children don't have to attend city schools. Sgt. LaPorte makes $67,000 after two decades on the job, he said, while a first-year Monroeville officer can earn $102,000.
Despite the state law changes, Councilman Ricky Burgess, the referendum sponsor, said he was confident the ballot question would be overwhelmingly approved if placed on the Nov. 5 ballot, and doubted a judge would overturn the will of voters. He also argued that police living outside the city would only make relations with the black community worse.
Police "only want to see us on those eight hours they're on duty," Mr. Burgess said. "They want to spend the rest of their time away from us, away from our kids. How in the world is that going to bring a closer relationship between the police and the rest of us?"
Only four of the current eight council members attended the hearing: Mr. Burgess, Darlene Harris, Theresa Kail-Smith and Natalia Rudiak. Bruce Kraus, Daniel Lavelle, Corey O'Connor and Bill Peduto were absent.
Tim McNulty: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns.