A Pittsburgh police commander whose zone has been the powder keg of community relations blowups said Thursday that he has ordered stepped-up supervision of officer responses, and he defended his roster's work in a tough environment.
"We at Zone 5 are cognizant that the community has concerns about some of the recent incidents," said Cmdr. Timothy O'Connor, minutes after the end of a protest spurred by an officer's arrest of a teacher last week. "As far as Zone 5 in general, we work in a very violent environment out here. ... We will continue, every day, to go out that door and do the best job we can for the residents of the communities we serve."
Zone 5, which stretches from East Liberty through Homewood, has long been the scene of contentious encounters between police and citizens, especially in its African-American neighborhoods. Tensions have been particularly high since the January 2010 arrest by three white officers of Jordan Miles, an African-American who was then a high school senior and whose civil lawsuit over his treatment by officers is set for a second trial in November.
Last week, Zone 5 Officer Jonathan Gromek arrested Dennis Henderson on Kelly Street, outside a meeting of the Community Empowerment Association that dealt in part with police-civilian relations.
Mr. Henderson, 38, a teacher at the Manchester Academy Charter School, said the incident started after he said, "Wow!" as Officer Gromek drove by at high speed. Mr. Henderson said he was standing by his car, exchanging business cards with freelance photographer Rossano Stewart.
Mr. Henderson said the officer turned his car around, handcuffed both men, and called for backup.
Mr. Henderson was jailed and charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and obstruction of highways.
The 25 protesters who gathered at the Zone 5 station Thursday demanded that Officer Gromek be placed on administrative leave pending an investigation of the incident, and that charges against Mr. Henderson be dropped. They also talked of the need for more respectful policing.
"African-American males are being harassed on a daily basis," said Lucille Prater-Holliday, a Homewood resident and founder of the Black Women's Empowerment Institute. "They are harassed for standing on the street and minding their own business."
She said Mr. Henderson is a perfect example of an African-American man who has done the right thing -- but nonetheless is treated like a criminal.
"He is treated like he has done nothing and he is worth nothing," she said. "His reputation is on the line. His family security is on the line.
"He is a teacher. Those charges on his record could end his career. All because he was standing on the street exchanging information with another African-American male."
Brandi Fisher, president of the Alliance for Police Accountability, said that late Wednesday she asked the office of Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. to drop the charges against Mr. Henderson.
Mr. Zappala's spokesman declined comment.
Cmdr. O'Connor said Officer Gromek remains on active duty and that the bureau has asked for an Office of Municipal Investigations review of the incident. Cmdr. O'Connor said the zone is "monitoring for" any sign that anyone may be targeting the officer. "We've had some crank phone calls at our desk" related to the officer, he said.
He said he has ordered his sergeants and lieutenants to step up their direct supervision of officers' handling of encounters with citizens.
"If we have our supervisors closely monitor the situation on the street, I think that's the best thing, the most practical thing, we can do," he said.
Cmdr. O'Connor stressed that his officers work hard under difficult circumstances. In the past six months, he said, three Zone 5 officers have been shot.
"Last year, we had 43 percent of the homicides in the city of Pittsburgh" and 139 arrests for firearms violations, he added.
If citizens disagree with a police order, they should comply and can later file a complaint with the Office of Municipal Investigations or Citizen Police Review Board, he said.
"It will be looked into, and there is a process, and believe me, it does work," he said.
Mr. Henderson tried to record his encounter with police with his cell phone.
Cmdr. O'Connor said citizens can record police in public places, but can't do so while being arrested, because they must be handcuffed.
Outside the station, Dairon Burden, 13, said police often conduct high-speed chases through the neighborhoods of the city's northeast corner, and a cruiser recently just missed hitting his friend.
"It's hard to talk to [police] whenever you're afraid" of them, he said.
"We have police chases, high-speed chases" through Zone 5 neighborhoods, said Ms. Prater-Holliday. "Like we don't have children. Like we don't have seniors."
Asked about chases, Cmdr. O'Connor said his officers "try and always operate within the law."
Rich Lord: email@example.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord. First Published July 4, 2013 5:00 PM