When David Hickton got a call from Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane telling him that a cross had been burned into grass outside of a city school, it was a reminder that his central mission as Western Pennsylvania's top prosecutor was far from done.
The August incident outside of Pittsburgh Mifflin Pre-K-8 school in Lincoln Place came three years -- almost to the day -- after his confirmation as U.S. attorney. His signature initiative since then has been the creation in October 2010 of a Civil Rights Section, and to him the symbol scorched into the lawn of an elementary school was a call to double down.
"Clearly, when you use the notorious sign of hate of a cross burning, you're sending a message," Mr. Hickton said last week. "And we're going to get after it," he added, noting that Civil Rights Section chief Shaun Sweeney is personally leading the investigation, along with the FBI.
As Mr. Hickton enters the fourth year of the civil rights push, he hopes to turn Homewood into a case study in police-community reconciliation, and expand existing efforts to curb human trafficking.
His approach to civil rights enforcement has featured a handful of prosecutions -- including several for cross burnings -- but has been characterized as much by lawsuits and consensus building. This year, his office sued the City Rescue Mission of New Castle for refusing to allow a blind man to bring a guide dog to a shelter, and wrapped up meetings involving police and neighborhood activists with a public airing of hopeful initiatives.
He won't promise civil rights indictments -- and that bothers some observers.
"If we were to be naive, we would say there must not be any violations of the civil rights of our citizens going on out there," said Joel Sansone, one of the attorneys representing Jordan Miles, a Homewood man who has sued three Pittsburgh police officers in relation to a 2010 encounter. "It continues to disappoint not only me, but I know many people in the legal community, that police officers are not held to the same standard as citizens regarding the use of deadly force."
Civil rights prosecutions, though up from levels during President George W. Bush's administration, are still relatively rare nationwide.
"I think it would be fair to say they're tough cases," said Mr. Hickton. "They require intensive investigations."
He's quick to point out that everyone in his office works "for the Department of Justice -- we don't work at the department of prosecution."
Tough to prosecute
Mr. Hickton's decision not to prosecute the officers accused of beating Mr. Miles may remain the best-known decision he's made in the civil rights arena, and it will reverberate into next year if, as expected, the encounter becomes the subject of a second civil trial in March. The first ended in a hung jury.
"I meet with people every single day who have been the victim of violence which seems to be unwarranted," said Mr. Sansone. "If Mr. Hickton wants to have a real effect to his initiative, he ought to go at the heart of the problem and make sure that those who are supposed to protect and serve do so.
"The cops aren't very afraid of civil damage," he said. "What they're afraid of is going to jail."
Before that trial starts, Mr. Hickton's office will make two bids to put former law enforcement professionals in jail for depriving others of their civil rights.
On Dec. 20, former Allegheny County Jail officer Arii L. Metz, 35, faces sentencing for punching inmate David Kipp in 2010. On Jan. 16, the future of 32-year-old Mark E. Thom Jr. -- formerly of the Springdale Borough police force until he threatened, punched and shocked motorist Gary Cahill with a Taser -- will be in the hands of U.S. District Judge Mark R. Hornak.
Mr. Hickton said his office also has a role in an ongoing federal review of the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh, driven by allegations by inmates of sexual abuses on F Block. Two former SCI Pittsburgh officers are serving probationary sentences handed down in state court.
Nationally, roughly 100 to 130 pure federal civil rights prosecutions are brought in a typical year. That's not much more than one for each of the 94 court districts. Far more allegations of criminal civil rights violations -- roughly 500 to 700 per year nationally -- are investigated but do not lead to charges.
"I think you often have to show intent in those cases, sort of intentional animus, which makes it very difficult to do," said Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
"When things happen that really are clear violations of civil rights, there should be an outcry, there should be a response, and there should be prosecution," said Pastor Sheldon Williams of the Allegheny Center Alliance Church, who is a former city police officer and now sits on a five-member "crisis team" created by Mr. Hickton to defuse police-community tensions. He added that it would be even more effective to reduce the number of incidents through "behavior changes."
Following his decision not to prosecute the officers in the Jordan Miles incident, Mr. Hickton launched a series of "listening sessions" in which law enforcement leaders and neighborhood activists aired their beefs. The effort progressed to surveys, public meetings and the creation of the crisis team.
That team includes Pastor Williams, Sheriff Bill Mullen, Pittsburgh police Assistant Chief Maurita Bryant, Urban League CEO Esther Bush and the Rev. John C. Welch, dean of students at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
The team has been activated twice -- following the shooting by police a year ago of 19-year-old Leon Ford in East Liberty, and the July arrest of teacher Dennis Henderson in a disagreement with an officer in Homewood. Mr. Hickton called it "very helpful."
Has it been enough?
"It's difficult to say sufficient," said Ms. Bush.
"Any time you start a process with the police and the community, being as far apart as we are here in Pittsburgh, it takes time," she said. "The fact that David Hickton is addressing it I think is very important, and it gives us an opportunity to address our concerns to him."
Mr. Walczak took time off from suing the city and other municipalities over alleged civil rights breaches to participate in the police-community dialogue.
"It's difficult to see that it has led to any substantial improvements in relationships," the ACLU lawyer said. "One of the problems that confronts Hickton now is that the police department is rudderless."
The department has been led by acting Chief Regina McDonald since February. The former chief, Nate Harper, awaits sentencing for conspiracy and tax violations following prosecution by Mr. Hickton's office.
Mr. Hickton sent Mr. Sweeney to train police leadership and recruits on civil rights, and has tried to keep the dialogue going. He "realizes that before you can improve relations, you need to bring an open mind and a listening ear to the table," said Assistant Chief Bryant.
Planting a seed in Homewood
At a public meeting in April, Mr. Hickton presented an array of efforts geared at better police-community relations, begging the question: What next?
The Dennis Henderson incident answered that question.
"Homewood, since we had our community-police relations meetings, has been the site of renewed and continuing community-police tension," Mr. Hickton said. So he's launched tentative -- and so far separate -- discussions with police brass like Assistant Chief Bryant on one hand, and community leaders on the other.
He held a second meeting with the neighborhood contingent on Thursday. So far, he's got more questions than answers.
"Can we assemble 20, 30, 50 people who will look at the future?" he asked, rather than dwell on past slights. "Are we going to develop a community intolerance for illegal guns? Are we going to develop a recognition that violence against police officers is as endemic as community violence?"
Pittsburgh Councilman Ricky Burgess, who represents Homewood, said the process should also send messages to police -- and to Washington.
"Fundamentally, [police] have to believe that they have to partner with the community," said Mr. Burgess. "Our police force, that's not their priority. Their priority is simply law enforcement, not partnering with the community.
Talk isn't enough, he said.
"We also need a disproportionate investment of resources -- not just police resources, but economic development resources in that community to turn it around," the councilman said. "I think [Mr. Hickton's] voice would be pivotal to the business community, and to federal dollars."
If efforts to ease tensions in Homewood work, the model might be replicated in places like McKees Rocks and the Mon Valley, Mr. Hickton said.
"I'm trying to help," he cautioned, "but the communities are really going to be masters of their own fates."
Jamming human traffickers
Mr. Hickton argues that among the worst civil rights violations are those against children. The section includes prosecutors Jessica Lieber Smolar and Carolyn Bloch, whose caseloads are heavy with child pornography charges.
They've begun to broaden their efforts to human trafficking, a global problem rarely aired in an area courtroom.
Last month Ms. Smolar won a guilty plea to a human trafficking charge against William C. Miller, 38, of the Hill District. That case involved the transportation and harboring of a 15-year-old prostitute, but human trafficking can also involve workers kept in slave-like conditions.
"We're going to make human trafficking a huge initiative in 2014," Mr. Hickton said. His office already works with the 8-year-old Western Pennsylvania Human Trafficking Coalition, which aims to meet the needs of trafficking victims. A challenge is finding the victims and getting their cooperation.
"Many trafficking victims find themselves, by their oppressors, put in the Hobson's choice of complying, or going home," where desperate situations may await them, said Mr. Hickton.
Where can a prosecutor find sources motivated to fight injustice, capable of advocating for the downtrodden and tapped into the dark corners of society? Among lawyers, Mr. Hickton hopes.
Top officials of the Allegheny County Bar Association recently approached him to explore bringing the lawyer group into the human trafficking effort.
"We can get involved as attorneys once we know who a victim is," said Nancy Heilman, an attorney at Cohen & Grigsby and president of the association. "We also want to determine how we can provide a voice for the victims."
Mr. Hickton said that much of what he does -- meeting sophisticated lawyers and vociferous community leaders, suing mortgage companies and rescue missions, and trying to put former guards and officers in prison -- continues to focus on a single goal. "I aim to make this district," he says, "an unwelcome place for civil rights violators."
Rich Lord: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord