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Pittsburgh Police chief meets with Hill District residents in first of several community meetings

Pittsburgh Police Chief Larry Scirotto speaks to a crowd at Bethel AME Church.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh Police Chief Larry Scirotto addresses a crowd gathered at Bethel AME Church on Thursday.

Hill District residents filled the pews of Bethel AME Church Thursday to hear directly from Pittsburgh Police Chief Larry Scirotto in the first of five scheduled “community conversations.” The Black Political Empowerment Project and the Alliance for Police Accountability organized the events.

“Today is the first day of our relationship together,” Scirotto told the crowd, pledging to “be intentional in building community-police partnerships.”

For two hours, attendees asked Scirotto questions about detainment procedures, mental health awareness among the police ranks, police discipline and personnel shuffling within the bureau’s higher ranks.

Beth Pittinger, executive director of Pittsburgh’s Citizen Police Review Board, also took questions from the audience about filing complaints against officers and the authority of the Review Board. Also present at the meeting were several other city officials, including Mayor Ed Gainey, Public Safety Director Lee Schmidt and Deputy Mayors Jake Pawlak and Jake Wheatley.

Mayor Ed Gainey sits in a pew at Bethel AME Church.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Mayor Ed Gainey attended a portion of Thursday's meeting at Bethel AME Church.

Though Thursday’s conversation was set to focus on the Hill District, some of the conversation centered around Garfield and an hours-long shootout between police and a man holed up in a home on Broad Street on Wednesday. Thousands of rounds were fired during the course of six hours before William Hardison was shot and killed. Officials have yet to determine if the fatal gunshot was self-inflicted or fired by one of the dozens of officers responding to the scene.

Throughout the day Wednesday, officers tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with Hardison, “albeit that’s not what you see," Scirotto said. Part of those negotiations included playing audio of family members pleading with Hardison to surrender, he said.

Scirotto stressed that he could not disclose specifics about what happened until the conclusion of an investigation by Pennsylvania State Police.

Tim Stevens, chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project, said the tragic incident in Garfield placed renewed importance on the goal of the series of police-community conversations.

“It was ironic,” that a police-involved shooting took place just 24 hours earlier, Stevens said. “The timing was bizarre.”

But Scirotto said the high value he placed on gathering insight from the community Thursday was unchanged by the events that unfolded the day before.

“The timing is rather unique … but it doesn’t have any more value than it did yesterday,” Scirotto said. “This is an ongoing effort. We’re building relationships. We’re building an environment of trust with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police and the community we serve.”

Dozens of people sit in pews at Bethel AME Church
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Dozens of people filled the pews for a meeting with Police Chief Scirotto at Bethel AME Church on Thursday.

With the conversation largely centering on questions about general police procedures, Scirotto’s background, union contracts and specifics about the Garfield investigation, some Hill District residents bemoaned a lack of focus on their neighborhood.

Carmen Pace, a Hill District resident and Democratic chairperson for the 5th Ward, said she was unable to ask follow-up questions of the chief because all questions had to be written down and handed in earlier to event organizers.

“I just hope when they move this through the other communities that … they allow the community to speak about the issues,” she said. “Talking to the chief about unions — that has nothing to do with violence up in the housing projects.”

Pace said she’d like to see a bigger police presence with more patrols in her neighborhood.

Benjamin Perrin, who also lives in the neighborhood, also lamented that so much of the meeting focused on issues not specifically relevant to the Hill District.

“This is our meeting right here,” he said. “Every community has issues, and they’re different.”

Perrin said his neighborhood is grappling with gun violence, drug activity and nuisances such as dirt bikes on the streets and rowdy bars.

Scirotto pointed to charges filed in June against two dozen members of an alleged crime syndicate for trafficking guns and drugs in the Hill District as proof of the city’s commitment to solving crimes in that neighborhood.

Stevens said he was pleased with how the evening proceeded. He argued that submitting written questions allowed the chief to provide more answers because, he said, “when people speak, they end up in speeches.”

The next police-community meeting will be held at the Northside Partnership Project on Sept. 5.

Stevens stressed that the event Thursday was just the start of an important moment for the new chief and police reform advocates. He noted that the issue of police relations with Pittsburgh’s Black community is as old as the bureau itself.

“It’s been a decades-old conversation,” Stevens said. “[We’re] trying to have an opportunity for the chief to share with these five communities his vision of how he sees policing and [for him to] hear from the public.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.