Pittsburgh group hoping to bridge community-police

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Ask when relations between law enforcement and some area residents went sour, and members of the Community-Police Working Group point to the same point in time, but different causes.

It was the mid-1990s, said Allegheny County Sheriff William Mullen at a news conference Tuesday. That's when gangs started preaching their "stop snitching" credo, making residents "scared to come forward" to police.

The mid-1990s also saw Jonny Gammage die in an encounter with suburban and city officers, in one of a series of contentious incidents, noted David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Efforts to improve relations are working "against a legacy of many years of mistrust," he said.

Though they debated the causes of police-community tensions, the working group members agreed that the problem must be addressed.

Now their 18-month-old effort to bridge mistrust and improve cooperation is coming out from behind closed doors and taking its message to the streets. The 40-member group launched a crisis team and announced a six-month process for improving relations between law enforcement and residents.

That starts with a community survey on relations with the police, which will be available online and distributed through organizations. A series of public meetings will be held this winter in Pittsburgh, Wilkinsburg, McKees Rocks and the Mon Valley. A community conclave, at which ideas for improving relations between police and law enforcement will be aired, is set for April 11.

"This is going to be a meeting for everybody to think in broad strokes," said Mr. Harris, who has studied similar efforts in Detroit and Cincinnati. Its core principle: "Only when the police and citizens are working together do we do everything we can to make this a better city and a safer city."

Launched in response to tensions after Homewood resident Jordan Miles' 2010 encounter with three Pittsburgh officers, the working group started in May 2011. U.S. Attorney David Hickton met with neighborhood advocates and civil rights voices, and then invited top brass and union leadership from city, county and federal law enforcement.

What followed were 15 meetings that ranged from "listening sessions" to detailed planning.

Mr. Hickton said the sessions were sometimes heated but came back to three shared goals: improving public safety, obeying the Constitution and respecting law enforcement.

To help achieve those goals, police-civilian incidents will be addressed by a crisis team consisting of Sheriff Mullen, Pittsburgh police Assistant Chief Maurita Bryant, Urban League CEO Esther Bush, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary vice president the Rev. John Welch and Pastor Sheldon Williams of the Allegheny Center Alliance Church. The team will try to defuse tensions and squelch rumors.

Mr. Hickton outlined a series of things the group has already done -- quietly -- including helping to ease racial tensions between Monessen and Brentwood high schools after an incident at a basketball game; launching a multiagency effort to improve public safety at the Allegheny Dwellings public housing community; and training city police in the legal nuances of excessive force and truthful reporting.

Police leaders, and their critics, seemed optimistic after the announcement.

"We're all after the same goal, and the goal is to make it safer, eliminate the crime and quit letting the criminals divide the community," Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper said.

"It may not impact tomorrow specifically, but [the effort] will help generations to come," said Brandi Fisher, chairwoman of the Alliance for Police Accountability, "as long as people stay genuinely committed to the cause."


Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord.


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