Tony Norman: Potential is there for a humane police force

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

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-ga­zette.com or 412-263-1631. Twit­ter @TonyNor­manPG.

Join the conversation:

Commenting policy | How to report abuse
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to socialmedia@post-gazette.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.
Commenting policy | How to report abuse

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here