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Identity & Community

Lawsuit to Balance Black Representation on Pittsburgh's Police Force Ongoing

A class-action lawsuit against the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police meant to end alleged discriminatory hiring practices against African Americans is nearing the point of resolution, either through negotiations or trial, says Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

The lawsuit, filed in August 2012, addresses the low percentage of African Americans hired by the city in the last decade. Since 2001, less than 4 percent of new officers were black, while Pittsburgh’s total African American population make-up of 26 percent. Of the 368 officers hired since 2001, 14 were African American and only 13 percent of the entire force is black.

According to Walczak, this lawsuit is needed to turn around the steady decline of diversity in the Pittsburgh police force.

“In the mid-90s, the city of Pittsburgh had one of the most diverse police forces in the country," Walczak said. "One that looked very similar to the demographics in the community. One of the arguments that the city has been trotting out for many years is that we’re simply not getting enough applications from people of color, and the city’s own statistics show that that argument is pretty much hogwash.”

Walczak pointed out that there might be more than individual justice at stake when it comes to fair hiring practices for police forces.

“There is significant tension in Pittsburgh, as in many cities, and certainly as we’re seeing in Ferguson [Missouri] right now, between the police and the communities that they serve,” Walczak said. “And one of the things that we repeatedly hear from the predominantly African American neighborhoods in the city is that, ‘All we see is these white officers coming in; they don’t understand us, they don’t care about us, they don’t want to talk to us,’ and that’s something that will change significantly if you start hiring people from the communities. ”

According to USA Today, Ferguson’s population is 67 percent black, but is served by 50 white police officers and 3 black. Ferguson’s department has been the subject of close scrutiny following the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white officer.

According to the ACLU lawsuit, approximately 20 percent of applicants to the Pittsburgh police force in the last few years are African Americans.

“Certainly, when you are getting a 20 percent application rate and you’re hiring at less than 4 percent, that is presumptive evidence under the law of race discrimination by the city,” Walczack said.

Walczak says the ACLU is in the middle of negotiations with the city of Pittsburgh, and he expects to know within two months whether the case will be resolved out of court or whether it will go to trial.