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Police Officials Tout Progress, Warn Of Waning Diversity On Force

A Pittsburgh Police hat.
Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh Police officials told City Council on last week that the bureau is making progress on a series of reforms — but they warned the force risked becoming less diverse at a time when racial tensions around policing have come to the forefront.

The hearing was called by City Councilor Corey O’Connor to assess the Bureau of Public Safety’s work on a series of police reforms proposed by a task force this past October. The task force called for a slew of changes in crowd control and use of force, police training and recruitment, community engagement and transparency in policing data.

“A lot of these issues cannot be addressed overnight,” Police Chief Scott Schubert said. “But others were addressed even before recommendations were made.”

Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich noted that as of last week, 78 police had been sidelined by virus concerns, and 18 were known to be infected. That kind of disruption, he said, “has slowed some of the response with the issues that have been brought to us.”

Still, officials touted success in many areas like community engagement. And they said more progress was expected in early 2021, when they hoped to make policing data more broadly available and to complete work on the “8 Can’t Wait” reforms to the use of force. Those changes, endorsed by Mayor Bill Peduto last summer, include a ban on chokeholds, an emphasis on de-escalation tactics and more rigorous standards for police accountability and use of force.  

Officials also said they welcomed efforts to have social service agencies rather than police handle concerns about mental health and homelessness — challenges which they acknowledged the average officer may not have sufficient expertise to handle.

Officers are “general practitioners … they are not the cardiologists,” said Hissrich. “They are confronted with issues that they don’t have the answers [for].”

But Schubert also expressed concerns that a longstanding concern about the police force — the disproportionately small number of non-white officers in its ranks — could get worse.

Currently, the force is about 13 percent Black, in a city where nearly one-quarter of residents are Black. More than 50 of those Black officers are eligible for retirement, Schubert says: If they all depart, the share of Black officers on the force would drop to just 7 percent. And with no plans to recruit a new class of officers next year — an austerity measure prompted by the coronavirus — there is little immediate prospect of reversing the trend.

“Right now, it doesn’t represent the demographics of the city of Pittsburgh,” Schubert said. “And if all [those eligible for retirement] would go, we’re going to be in pretty bad shape. … It’s something, and I’ve said it to you before, that’s of deep concern to me for our organization.”

Black officers on the force are more likely to be older, because many of them were hired under a 1970s-era federal consent decree that required half of new police hires to be black. But the percentage of new hires who are Black has dropped since the decree lapsed. In recent years, the city has sought to step up recruitment of non-white officers, but with little effect on the overall trend.

Broader staffing issues led to an exchange with City Councilor Deb Gross over the debate about whether to “defund” police by redirecting money toward way from law enforcement and toward social-services. The issue has been at the forefront of protests and public comment before council throughout the latter half of the year.

HIssrich said that when he joined the Peduto administration, the message he heard was “We need more officers, we need more officers.” The force reached 900 positions — a level he said was appropriate. “Now we want to curtail back to where we were years ago. … In my opinion it would be very detrimental to the city of Pittsburgh as far as crime.”

Schubert added that if cuts were made, the first things to be cut would be community engagement efforts that try to ease police-community tensions.

“My whole career I have believed in community policing, but there are resources you need to make that happen,” he said.

Gross was unconvinced. She noted, as she has before, that Pittsburgh has more police per capita than many other comparable cities. And she noted that the city’s just-passed 2021 budget contained steeper cuts for other services while leaving $111 million for policing.

“This budget defunds city planning … and it’s defunded [the Department of Public Works] and defunded Parks and Rec,” she said. “And we did not defund police even a little bit.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.