Tony Norman: Jordan Miles case testifies to a harsh police reality

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The contempt that many Pittsburgh police officers have for Jordan Miles and people like him says a lot about what's wrong with criminal justice in this town.

The question boils down to this for a jury weighing Mr. Miles' civil suit against the three officers who beat and arrested him in Homewood in January 2010 -- did their conduct that night represent the best practices of the Pittsburgh police in dealing with a perceived threat at the time?

There are a lot of facts in dispute, but everyone agrees on this: Jordan Miles, who was unarmed, was beaten by three undercover police officers who outweighed him and benefited from advanced police training.

The charges the officers brought against Mr. Miles were thrown out. Pittsburgh Officers Michael Saldutte and David Sisak and former city Officer Richard Ewing, now with McCandless, claim that Mr. Miles was carrying a soda bottle in his jacket that they mistook for a gun.

The Mountain Dew bottle never turned up, although the defendants are now arguing that bullets found in the vicinity of one of the city's most crime-ridden neighborhoods days later somehow belonged to Mr. Miles, thus justifying his arrest after all. It is a stretch even by the outlandish standards of police defense lawyers.

Bear in mind that by the officers' own admission, they never saw Mr. Miles with an actual gun. If I were on the jury, I would wonder why the plaintiff would be walking around Homewood carrying bullets but no gun, unless they're supposed to believe he was some kind of weird urban iteration of Johnny Appleseed.

Still, it is enough for the defendants' lawyers to argue that Mr. Miles was the irrational one that night and that law-abiding black people have nothing to fear from three white guys jumping out of a car screaming about guns, drugs and money after allegedly identifying themselves as police.

All things being equal, black people in Pittsburgh will continue to run away from white cops under similar circumstances, whether guilty or not, because chances that a severe beating or worse will be administered before things are finally sorted out are still pretty high. Law enforcement is not known for its attention to nuance around these parts. If you look like a "criminal," that's usually enough.

A quick dash down an icy street might spare you a beating that changes your life, assuming you can get away. Mr. Miles did not get away. After a beating that he will remember in his dreams for as long as he lives, he found himself charged with crimes so laughable and trumped up that they were quickly thrown out.

Former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper did not cover himself in glory during this case. He sided with the officers during an earlier trial and testified that they followed procedure, despite evidence to the contrary. Like the officers, Harper was invested in a system that values loyalty to the badge more than justice.

Ironically, the former chief, who is universally lauded as a "nice guy" by the rank-and-file, is going to prison soon for unrelated crimes against the taxpayers. Harper was, indeed, a nice guy, but he was a terrible leader in a town that needs principled leadership to get bad cops off the street.

The best that can be said about Harper was that he failed to grasp the depths of the problem and was wholly uncritical of a system that treats black people like second-class citizens.

On the rare occasion when he wanted to fire an officer, Harper was ineffectual, thanks to Fraternal Order of Police stonewalling and the rules of arbitration that make it almost impossible to dismiss even the worst cop for cause.

Fortunately, Mayor Bill Peduto understands the scope of the problem and has made the appointment of a police chief who won't perpetuate the miserable status quo a priority. Good luck in finding a local candidate who isn't tainted by the same good ol' boy cronyism that hobbled Harper. He'll have to go national to find someone who sees the injustice of having officers who patrol the city but live in the suburbs -- now a future possibility under an arbitrator's ruling.

While in general, cops here aren't remotely as corrupt or brutal as they are in, say, Philly or New Orleans, there are far too many on the force who lack even basic empathy for the people they've sworn an oath to protect.

Some of it is undoubtedly racism, but most of it is simple lack of respect for civilians. Mr. Ewing, who now works in McCandless, would never dream of doing on those suburban streets what he once did in Pittsburgh.


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

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