Tony Norman: Potential is there for a humane police force

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Recently, I was stand­ing in line at one of my fa­vor­ite Squir­rel Hill haunts plac­ing a break­fast or­der when some­one called my name. When I turned to ac­knowl­edge the greet­ing, I saw two smil­ing Pitts­burgh po­lice of­fi­cers hav­ing cof­fee at one of the ta­bles.

It took me a sec­ond or two to rec­og­nize the vaguely Rich­ard Gere-look­ing of­fi­cer be­cause we were see­ing one an­other in a dif­fer­ent con­text from usual. My friend was wear­ing a po­lice uni­form, which mo­men­tar­ily threw me and ren­dered him un­recog­niz­able. Let’s call him “DS,” though if he knew I was writ­ing this col­umn, he might be fine with my us­ing his real name.

The pre­vi­ous time I saw DS was at a meet­ing of as­pir­ing screen­writ­ers a few years ago at his Squir­rel Hill apart­ment. He was not a cop at that time, but he was a na­tion­ally pub­lished writer with sev­eral books and man­u­scripts un­der his belt. He was also an ac­a­demic who taught writ­ing (and I think screen­writ­ing) at one of the lo­cal uni­ver­sities. Though I’‍m not sure what his pol­i­tics were at the time, I got the im­pres­sion from some of the books that lined his shelves that he was lib­eral minded, or at least con­ver­sant with pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics.

Fast for­ward to the re­cent restau­rant en­coun­ter on a Satur­day morn­ing, and there he was, a Pitts­burgh cop hav­ing cof­fee with his equally friendly part­ner, who had kind words for me and a firm hand­shake. To say that I was not used to ex­chang­ing pleas­ant­ries with Pitts­burgh po­lice would be an un­der­state­ment. Subur­ban po­lice I’ve known are gen­er­ally easy­go­ing, but Pitts­burgh cops have been stand­off­ish to­ward me for rea­sons I com­pletely un­der­stand.

I got an ab­bre­vi­ated ex­pla­na­tion about how DS be­came a cop, but it is a con­ver­sa­tion I def­i­nitely want to fol­low up now that I’‍ve got­ten past be­ing star­tled. I won­dered for a sec­ond whether he was en­gaged in deep cover re­search for a screen­play or some­thing, but he’s too eth­i­cal to put him­self in a po­si­tion where he wouldn’‍t be truly se­ri­ous about shoul­der­ing the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties that come with the gun and the badge.

No, DS is def­i­nitely a cop. It was a re­lief that some­one I know to be deeply em­pa­thetic and lit­er­ate as hell could get hired by the city for the po­si­tion. He’s not some­one who will let the job coun­ter­ing bad guys cor­rode his hu­man­ity. I can’‍t imag­ine him treat­ing a ci­vil­ian — even a rude one — with con­tempt, no mat­ter the prov­o­ca­tion.

I’m con­fi­dent DS will never pis­tol-whip an in­no­cent ci­vil­ian on the South Side or falsely ar­rest a pe­des­trian af­ter nearly run­ning him over while speed­ing down a res­i­den­tial street. He will never be part of an un­der­cover de­tail ca­pa­ble of sav­agely beat­ing an un­armed teen­ager in Home­wood, ei­ther. His re­sponse to cir­cum­stances will be pro­por­tional, rather than an ex­pres­sion of blind panic or in­ep­ti­tude to be ra­tio­nal­ized later by the FOP.

I have an­other friend, a re­tired ho­mi­cide de­tec­tive, who writes po­etry, quotes ex­is­ten­tial­ist lit­er­a­ture, pals around with Hol­ly­wood types and pours ev­ery dime he makes through en­tre­pre­neurial ven­tures into pro­grams for in­ner city youth. His sense of mis­sion didn’‍t end when he gave up the badge. He’s not typ­i­cal, but he’‍s not as rare as I once thought, be­fore we be­came friends.

This friend — let’s call him “Jimmy C” — in­sists that most Pitts­burgh po­lice are de­cent and hon­or­able, and I be­lieve him. My the­ory is that the po­lice bu­reau­cracy can’t root out its rel­a­tively small num­ber of thugs, bul­lies and in­com­pe­tents, be­cause a siege men­tal­ity kicks in when even the worst of them stands ac­cused. Good of­fi­cers are re­luc­tant to rat out their chron­i­cally trou­bled col­leagues be­cause in­teg­rity is of­ten pun­ished, not re­warded. Be­sides, thanks to ar­bi­tra­tion, it is nearly im­pos­sible for the city to fire bad cops.

Be­cause the Pitts­burgh po­lice ha­ven’‍t had a truly tal­ented and com­pe­tent leader in years, Mayor Bill Peduto’s ap­point­ment of a new po­lice chief in the fall will say a lot about his vi­sion for the city. The fact that some­one like my friend could be em­ployed here could mean that Pitts­burgh is fi­nally past tol­er­at­ing the era of the nasty-tem­pered cop who knows how to game the sys­tem.

Tony Nor­man: tnor­man@post-ga­ or 412-263-1631. Twit­ter @TonyNor­manPG.

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