Speakers at Pittsburgh city council hearing voice concerns over police relations with black residents

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Testimony at a packed Pittsburgh City Council public hearing today on police residency requirements largely touched on anger at police relations with black residents, and residual feelings left over from the Trayvon Martin case in Florida.

The Pittsburgh police union is currently in contract arbitration seeking to lift requirements in city law that they -- like other employees -- live within the city limits. 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.

Not a single person at the hour-long hearing spoke out against the referendum. Instead a dozen scheduled speakers either spoke out in favor of the residency requirement, or aired complaints about police behavior. More than 60 schoolchildren added to the chorus, many of them stepping to the microphone to allege they have been harassed by members of a largely white police force.

"We are being policed as if we're in a war zone," said Valerie Lauw, the president of the citizen council in Northview Heights, a public housing development. "We have police just stopping you for being black. We know that, it has to stop."

Tim Stevens, the president of the Black Pittsburgh Empowerment Project, cited police statistics from 2001-2009 showing only 23 of 349 police recruits from the period were African-American. That would only worsen if police lived outside the city, he said.

"Even with the current requirement that officers be required to live in the city of Pittsburgh, we've had 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. But Councilman Ricky Burgess, the referendum sponsor, said he was confident the ballot question would be overwhelmingly approved and doubted a judge would overturn the will of voters.

A jury found George Zimmerman was not guilty this week of murdering the unarmed Mr. Martin, 17, in February 2012, spurring protests in Pittsburgh and elsewhere around the country.

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Timothy McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. On Twitter: @EarlyReturns


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