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: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631. Twitter @TonyNormanPG.