Pittsburgh police, residents' viewpoints heard

'Young people ... haven't seen a healthy community'

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Twenty-four hours after top leaders from the community and Pittsburgh police and government held a closed meeting to discuss the public arrest of a teacher a week ago in Homewood, neighborhood residents gathered to share their experiences with those tasked to serve and protect.

Both meetings were held in the Community Empowerment Association's gymnasium -- Monday night's meeting prompted by city Councilman Ricky Burgess; Tuesday night's by the association's president and CEO Rashad Byrdsong.

"We are all aware of situations where police have ignored our civil and constitutional rights," Mr. Byrdsong told the crowd of about 100, adding that the meeting intended to see if such clashes were isolated events or indicative of a culture problem.

To improve the relationship between residents and police, the community must be willing to comply with police orders, Zone 5 Cmdr. Tim O'Connor said after the meeting. His zone encompasses Homewood.

"In any kind of interactions with police, it's vital that people comply," he said. "There's always a process after, if you feel you've been aggrieved, but to prevent tragedy from occurring, we need compliance."

He said the two meetings are a good starting point in improving the relationship between community and police.

Mr. Burgess called for increased sensitivity training, community input during the selection of a new police chief, and said the problem was going to take more than a meeting to solve it. "Everyone in our community must be treated with respect," he said.

Monday night's meeting was held to discuss the June 26 arrest of a teacher after he and a photographer had argued with a police officer, who then called for backup totaling more than 10 officers, some with canines.

Tuesday night, people from across the city testified about their experiences with police.

Shirley Taylor, 60, of East Liberty said she would never forget the kindness of an officer -- Officer Friendly, she called him -- who let her sleep in a police car when she was 22 and had nowhere else to go.

But fast-forward several decades, and she said she has to teach her grandchildren how to interact with police.

"Young people in their teens haven't seen a healthy community," Ms. Taylor said.

An incident that had occurred only hours before the meeting created much conversation at the session.

Pittsburgh police arrested Beyshaud El, 18, and Will El, 21, both of Homewood, on Homewood Avenue around 1:45 p.m. Cmdr. O'Connor said an officer -- later identified in court documents as Zone 5 Lt. Reyne Kacsuta -- had stopped the two men to determine if they were old enough to purchase tobacco.

According to criminal complaints filed by Officer Ryan Warnock, the two men were arguing with the lieutenant when he responded to provide backup.

The brothers repeatedly stood up after having been told to sit down, Officer Warnock wrote. Will El made a punching motion toward Frank Welling, a third officer who had responded. Officer Welling forced Will El to the wall so he could not punch him, Officer Warnock wrote.

Beyshaud El then stood up in an aggressive manner, though Officer Warnock wrote that he told him to sit down, while drawing his Taser. Beyshaud El then attempted to hit Officer Welling in the back of the head, Officer Warnock said. Before Beyshaud El was able to do so, Officer Warnock said he shocked him with the Taser.

Beyshaud El was taken to UPMC Mercy to be evaluated for the Taser hit.

Both men were charged with a felony count of aggravated assault and were being held in the Allegheny County Jail while their mother, cousin and grandmother told community members at Tuesday's meeting about the incident.

The men's mother called the incident horrific, and said she hoped for change.

"We need something between the police and community, so children feel more comfortable," said their mother, Medina El, 37, of Homewood.

The independent Citizen's Police Review Board has an open inquiry into Tuesday's incident, said its executive director Elizabeth Pittinger.

"I'm getting concerned about minor concerns leading to public safety issues," she said.


Lexi Belculfine: lbelculfine@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878.


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