Justice Dept.'s decision in Jordan Miles case increases distrust
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The news that the Department of Justice wouldn't file charges against three Pittsburgh police officers accused of using excessive force against a Homewood teenager was disappointing for the teen and his family.
But for the community affected by it, the decision has served only to exacerbate a feeling of distrust of the police that existed even before the January 2010 incident.
"I see a real serious polarization between the police and the community," said University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris. "This is a very serious impediment to public safety in our city."
When relations are strained, he continued, police officers have even more difficulty getting the essential information that they need to investigate crimes, and community members are even more reluctant to turn to the authorities for help.
"If you want to have real, sustained gains in public safety, the police must do it along with community support," said Mr. Harris, an expert in the subject. "Amongst black Pittsburghers, this was a signal case. People were looking at this case to see if there would be consequences to what, clearly, was a mistake."
But now, he continued, "What we're facing is a real crisis of confidence and trust. That is something that can only be repaired by rebuilding that trust."
Within days of the late night arrest and beating of Jordan Miles on Tioga Street in Homewood on Jan. 12, 2010, fellow students from the city's Creative and Performing Arts high school marched to the City-County Building and demanded an investigation into the officers' actions.
The officers were suspended with pay while simultaneous investigations by the FBI and the city's Office of Municipal Investigations were ongoing.
In the 17 months since then, there have been repeated protests and petitions, and the incident has prompted legislation in city council designed to hold police officers more accountable. But the feeling of the people in the communities most affected by crime seems to be that no one in a position of power is listening to them. And worse, no one cares.
"Right now, they're sending a message that the police have no guidelines -- that they can do no wrong," said Brandi Fisher, the chair of the Alliance for Police Accountability.
Elizabeth Pittinger, the executive director of the city's Citizen Police Review Board, agreed, citing additional allegations of recent police misconduct including domestic violence, theft and drunkenness in which officers were allowed to return to the job.
"The trustworthiness of the bureau right now is really shot," Ms. Pittinger said. "It gets to be almost farcical."
But the Miles incident, she continued, was "devastating" to the relationship between police and community members.
Particularly among young people, she said, trust has eroded.
"They're fearful of the police -- not for the authority they represent, but for their own safety."
Ms. Fisher believes that if someone in a position of authority -- the chief, the mayor, the Fraternal Order of Police, the district attorney -- would acknowledge that an innocent person was injured, then the community might begin to heal.
"That would show there's some hope," she said. "I told people to trust in the system. I believed justice would prevail. There's nothing I can tell people anymore."
Chief Nate Harper could not be reached for comment.
After the announcement that no charges would be filed against the officers, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said he believed it was time to heal the soured relationship between the community and police, and work to increase mutual trust.
But the FOP and attorneys for the accused officers celebrated what they saw as vindication.
Mr. Harris believes that kind of rhetoric is misplaced.
"Law enforcement saying, 'See, we were right. We did nothing wrong,' that is a mistake," Mr. Harris said. "Everyone can agree this did not go well. We have an innocent kid who was badly hurt.
"That has to be acknowledged, [even if] they may not have broken the law."
"It is simply fantasy to say it's all over, and let's move on. A city that doesn't deal with this, at some point, there comes a day of reckoning. There's a point where people will say, 'we've had enough.' "
That kind of reckoning occurred in Cincinnati in April 2001.
Allegations of racial profiling by the city police department spawned a federal lawsuit, and then there was a police shooting of an unarmed man.
That was followed by three days of rioting.
The federal judge assigned to the racial profiling lawsuit asked that the parties try to work out their differences in a mediation.
Jay Rothman, who has worked in conflict resolution for decades and has mediated in places such as Northern Ireland and Israel, was hired to oversee the Cincinnati Police-Community Relations Collaborative.
Mr. Rothman's group first started by collecting more than 3,500 surveys and then led eight different focus groups, consisting of a variety of community stakeholders such as minorities, youth, business leaders, educators, religious leaders and police officers.
The participants were asked to offer their ideas on how to best improve police-community relations.
But they first had the opportunity to vent and express the hurt, frustration and anger that they were feeling, Mr. Rothman said.
"We try to guide their passion and anger into an agent for constructive change," he said.
Once all sides understood where the others were coming from, they then sought to reach common ground.
In a heavily structured process, they came to share what it is they wanted to accomplish, Mr. Rothman said.
After nine months, all sides signed off on a binding settlement agreement addressing police-community relations in Cincinnati that brought to an end the federal racial profiling lawsuit.
But, Mr. Rothman said, it took about five or six years for everyone to understand what was really accomplished: the creation of an atmosphere where the police and citizens have mutual respect for each other and seek to build a safer community.
"There's no cookie cutter you take from Cincinnati and apply to Pittsburgh," Mr. Rothman said. "It's not an easy set of answers. But the process of engaging in deliberations on the problem is a main part of the solution."
First Published May 8, 2011 12:00 am