Officer not too smart at Homewood scene

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Last Wednesday, this newspaper ran a front-page story about a survey by the real estate brokerage company Movoto.com that identified Pittsburgh as the city with "the smartest population" in the country.

Lumosity, an online brain-performance site, wasn't as generous, but Pittsburgh placed No. 4 in its rankings.

Whether first or fourth, a city that had never really considered itself even a little bit "brainy" until last week reacted gratefully, if somewhat sheepishly, to the news we'd beaten such manifestly brainy places as New York and Boston for the double honors.

Being ranked as one of America's brainiest cities was the kind of validation we needed, although Ray Bolger's performance as the Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz" comes to mind, too. Remember that scene where the Wizard, played by Frank Morgan, gives the Scarecrow the diploma that officially made him a doctor of Thinkology?

Well, some might say that the survey results of a real estate brokerage firm and a website that measures the brain power of a small percentage of Pittsburghers feels a lot like the Scarecrow's placebo.

In any case, the ink was barely dry on Pittsburgh's doctorate of Thinkology when Zone 5 Officer Jonathan Gromek, a seven-year veteran of the force, threw our newly minted reputation as a "smart" American city into serious doubt.

For reasons that eluded Mr. Gromek, two law-abiding civilians leaving a Homewood meeting where attendees had been discussing problems with community/police relations took exception to nearly being run over by the speeding officer in his patrol car.

The officer wasn't pursuing anyone when he careened down Kelly Street at a high rate of speed, so he slowed down and made a U-turn, supposedly after seeing Dennis Henderson, a Pittsburgh schoolteacher, shouting at him in the squad car's rearview mirror. The teacher was accompanied by freelance photographer Rossano Stewart.

The officer, who is white, reportedly asked the two black civilians if they "had a problem with his driving" and whether they wanted to file a complaint. He may have meant it sarcastically, but it was a needlessly provocative question -- and dumb, too.

Meanwhile, other folks at the community meeting were beginning to file out. When the two men asked for his badge number, he got agitated enough to call for more police backup. Before it was over, there may have been as many as 15 officers on the scene, including several police dogs.

The folks who witnessed the incident did what black people have done consistently since Rodney King -- they got out their phones and videotaped two nonresisting civilians being handcuffed and forced to the ground. Mr. Henderson was charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and obstructing a roadway and spent a night in jail. Mr. Stewart was released with a warning, but once again the Pittsburgh police department had another avoidable public relations disaster on its hands.

Think about it: Everyone could've parted ways Wednesday evening with their dignity intact. Alas, that's not what happened in America's Smartest City. If only the agitated officer had been just a wee bit smarter, he would've made a self-deprecating joke about nearly running over two civilians in a community where everyone is talking about strained police-community relations. It would've been absolutely charming.

Or, he could've gone the surreal, nerdy route by claiming he had been pursuing an experimental Quantum car stolen from CMU that managed to jump into warp speed seconds before he closed in on it. No one would've believed him, but he would've earned points for imagination.

Or, had Officer Gromek been more eager to avoid bad press for himself and the Pittsburgh police, he could've de-escalated the incident with a simple, yet sincere, apology for nearly running over two civilians. It has never killed anyone to say "I'm sorry."

Perhaps the civilians would have still resented him, but at least an apology would've kept the officer's name out of the papers and prevented anyone from being herded through the criminal justice system unnecessarily. Not overreacting would've been smart. Too bad he wasn't framing his doctorate of Thinkology like the rest of us.

tonynorman

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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