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Peduto Pledges Investigations And Reform, But Activists Say He Must Go Further

Gene J. Puskar
A group gathers, blocking an intersection in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh on Monday, June 1, 2020 protesting the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day, May 25.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said Thursday he will wait for the results of two investigations before drawing conclusions about why and how police broke up a protest in East Liberty Monday. In the meantime, he vowed to adopt new police reforms — a pledge that received a tepid response from some local black activists, who said the city must go farther.

Regarding Monday's protest, Peduto said at a news conference Thursday, “I’m not going to make an opinion until there’s been a full investigation. There’s two completely different sides about what happened and what the proper use [of force by police] was.”

Monday’s march was held to protest police brutality following the death of a black Minneapolis man, George Floyd, while in police custody. Public safety officials said they shot bean bags and tear gas at protesters because as the demonstration ended, a “splinter group” had started to vandalize storefronts and throw rocks and bottles at officers. Protesters dispute that account, saying police fired rubber bullets at them first.

On Wednesday, the mayor asked the city’s Office of Municipal Investigations and the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board to begin probes into the handling of the protest. He said his administration would give the municipal investigations office extra resources to hire “outside groups” to review the timeline of events and what tactics police used.

Credit An-Li Herring / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto (left) and his chief of staff, Dan Gilman, spoke with reporters Thursday, June 4, about a new agenda to reform policing at the local and state level.

Peduto said he hopes the police review board will receive assistance from local representatives of the ACLU and the NAACP, as well as the U.S. Attorney's Office. He said those organizations could provide expertise on best practices for crowd dispersal, free speech protections, and implicit bias in policing.

Jasiri X, founder and CEO of 1Hood Media and a protest organizer, questioned how effective or transparent the investigations would be. In the past, officers have stonewalled the review board's efforts to compel them to testify, and the Office of Municipal Investigations conducts much of its work out of public view.

“Where's the transparency? Are we going to know what officers they interview? Are we going to know what they said? Is this going to be a public hearing?” Jasiri X asked. “So if this is going to be an independent investigation, I would say it needs to be public.”

‘We used the best available information’

Although the investigations Peduto requested have just gotten underway, the mayor disclosed Thursday that police communications suggest officers had been pelted with rocks and other objects for seven minutes before using bean bags and smoke to disperse a crowd near the intersection of Centre and Negley avenues.

Transcripts also indicate that police requested permission from commanders to use tear gas one time but were denied, according to Peduto. He said officers made the request when a group of protesters moved from Centre Avenue to Baum Boulevard, where he said a fire was set in the street and projectiles were thrown at officers for a third time.

Public safety officials said Tuesday they had used tear gas, after previously saying they had only used smoke canisters. Videos on social media, moreover, show that protesters' faces were reddened and full of tears. Peduto acknowledged that despite officials' earlier claims, smoke alone was unlikely to have that effect.

“The way that they are reacting is not an indication of smoke,” he said of those seen in the videos. “But that’s up to [the Office of Municipal Investigations] to pull those different parts together and create a much better timeline than I could do in one day.”

Peduto said he spent all of Tuesday reviewing events. So far, he said, he has received a 98-page report from the city’s Department of Public Safety that outlines police radio transmissions between Saturday and Monday evening.

In addition, he said he has reviewed eyewitness accounts, constituent complaints, and expert opinions about what happened in East Liberty, along with best practices on police use of force.

Peduto has drawn intense criticism for not condemning officers’ actions in remarks hours after the East Liberty protest. At the time, the mayor did not contest accounts provided by public safety officials. And he said he would not release the transcripts of police orders.

On Thursday, Peduto said he'd held the Monday-night press conference in an effort to be transparent, but admitted that some of what he'd said had been incorrect. “We used the best available information in order to be able to present what our findings were,” Peduto said of that late-night news conference. “They were wrong. And that’s why we’re at the point of an [Office of Municipal Investigations] investigation.”

Allegheny County Councilor and protest organizer Liv Bennett said the mayor should have waited for more information instead of “countering [protesters’] experiences to side with police in a protest that is centered around police engagement in the first place.”

She said Peduto still could have conveyed that what he saw “was disturbing” but that he wouldn’t “voice any opinion until [he gets] all information.”

‘We’re calling for the demilitarization of policing’

In the meantime, the mayor announced he would adopt a host of police reforms. For example, he said he would immediately implement policies backed by the “8 Can’t Wait” campaign. Those policies include requiring police forces to train officers in de-escalation tactics to prevent the use of force, banning the use of strangleholds and chokeholds by police, and ordering officers to give verbal commands to a suspect before using deadly force.

The mayor also pledged to review the city’s use-of-force policies and to work with community members to reform them. And he urged state legislators to enact new rules on when police may use lethal force and to give municipal leaders more power to discipline and fire officers. He said state lawmakers must unite across racial lines to adopt such changes.

“I’m calling on every other white elected official to support and back and sponsor these bills,” Peduto said.

“The fact that he came out with some policies is encouraging,” Jasiri X said of that agenda. “However, it does not go far enough.” Jasiri noted, too, that Peduto unveiled the initiative without input from local activists like Jasiri, who have led local efforts to organize protests.

“It would have been powerful if he would have come to us and said, ‘What do you guys want? What do you think … as the victims, as those who have lost family members and loved ones and those who have been working on these issues for … years?'”

Black residents are more likely to buy into policy changes created by such an approach, Jasiri said. And he added, “If [the city] is going to sit down and meet with folks, it should be including many of these young people [who] are organizing these protests,” rather than established groups such as the NAACP and the Urban League.

“No disrespect to them,” Jasiri said of the more traditional organizations. But, "you’ve met with them for the past 20 years. What’s changed?”

Bennett agreed that Peduto's police reform package must go farther. Of the initiative, she said, “That’s nice, but it’s definitely not enough. We’re calling for the demilitarization of policing.”

Bennett said she and fellow Democratic county councilor Bethany Hallam plan to introduce legislation next week that would ban the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and other crowd-control tactics. Bennett added that municipalities throughout the region, not just Pittsburgh, should implement reforms.

And she said, leaders who are serious about change should ensure that their efforts include black voices from the outset.

“It’s great that we have leaders that are, quote unquote, progressive. But no matter how progressive you are, as a white leader you’re not living the black experience,” Bennett said. “In order to solve [problems with police], we need to have these hard conversations.”