On Policing, Data Shows Citywide Gains, But Room To Improve
It’s no surprise that policing is a key issue in Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s bid for a third term. Protests over police misconduct in Pittsburgh and across the country came to a head on his front porch in August. Activists demanded answers about the way police responded to previous demonstrations, arresting protesters and deploying so-called less-lethal crowd dispersal tactics.
After a heated exchange, Peduto went inside, and police disbanded the demonstrators. But the issue itself hasn’t gone anywhere. But a look at annual Bureau of Police reports and other yearly data collected by the city suggest that in many ways, Peduto has improved the way the city polices its streets … even though the numbers show some problems remain unaddressed.
When Peduto first took office in 2014, police reports show, there were more than 15,000 arrests each year, on average. Since then, the number of annual arrests has declined steadily; in 2019, Pittsburgh Police carried out 9,500 arrests, a drop of one-third during that time period.
The number of arrests has declined across all racial groups, but the rate of decrease has been slower for Black arrestees. As a result, Black people are still the largest share of those being arrested. And in fact, they make up a larger share -- over 60 percent, from just over half -- of those being arrested.
State Representative Ed Gainey, who is challenging Peduto for the Democratic nomination for mayor in the spring primary, said a major reason Black residents are being arrested in high numbers is because police spend more time than they need to in Black neighborhoods.
“At the bottom of my street is a stop sign. I’ve been pulled over 11 or 12 times because they said I didn’t stay at the stop sign long enough,” he said. “Over-policing in neighborhoods is a problem. The [arrest] numbers are down, but the percentages in our communities are so high, because at the end of the day that’s a targeted area.”
Gainey said if he is elected, he would pull police out of heavily-policed areas, particularly Black and brown neighborhoods.
City Councilor Ricky Burgess, a Peduto ally, has proposed a string of police reform bills. But he said what is really driving the numbers is economic inequality.
“As long as you have Black people in Pittsburgh who are disproportionately poor and disproportionately living in communities at high need and at risk, you're going to see a higher incidence of criminal behavior,” Burgess said. “Because that's just the recipe. Putting poor people in poor places without amenities, without hope, leads to crime.”
Burgess and Peduto have worked together to address the disproportionate arrest numbers, and crime in general. Among the initiatives is the Stop The Violence Fund, which partners with city leaders and community organizers to address and prevent violence, especially in communities of color.
“I’m going to argue that we have been one of the most progressive cities in the entire nation during his time as mayor,” Burgess said. “We have brought lots of training, we’ve moved money from police to community services… we’ve done almost everything within our power.”
Last year Peduto created a police reform task force made up of educators, public health experts, and nonprofit organizers. The body found that arrest data show clear racial disparities, which the group said indicated “the presence of discrimination based on race.” They also recommended that the department “identif[y] all racial disparities in its routine actions,” and create specific plans to eliminate disparities within one year.
In response to questions about the higher percentage of Black arrestees, the mayor’s office said in a statement that violent crime and murder rates are down substantially citywide since 2014, from 2,434 to 1,327 in 2020. The city also boasted that homicides are down 28 percent, from 71 in 2014 to 51 in 2020, and they have tripled the number of officers focused on community engagement, violence prevention and community health and safety.
“[Neighborhood Resource Officers] were put in neighborhoods identified by the Chief and the community to serve as beat cops,” the statement said. “[T]hey become a part of the community to help build trust, which helps in crime prevention and identifying places of concern early.”
“These initiatives are all aimed to lower police interactions and arrests. The US needs to address systemic criminal justice reform; we have done a lot but there is a lot more that needs to be done to make sure we address disproportional arrests.”
‘They broadened their view’
While last summer’s protests generated renewed concern about police tactics, data from recent years doesn’t show a marked increase in complaints. The Citizen Police Review Board, for one, saw a steady decline in complaints during Peduto’s first three years in office, when the chief was Cameron McLay. The numbers have risen slightly since then under Chief Scott Schubert, and there was a spike in complaints in 2020. But review board executive director Beth Pittnger said that overall, they have dropped significantly since 2008. She cited a cultural shift in the police bureau as a cause.
“They broadened their view of what law enforcement [is] and how law enforcement should be practiced in the city of Pittsburgh. That made a big difference,” she said. “[Police Chief Scott] Schubert has been holding officers accountable where he can... Where they can be disciplined he has, and he has done it quickly.”
The city also handles complaints through the Office of Municipal Investigations, its internal-affairs department. OMI’s caseload has remained steady, averaging about 171 cases a year. Most of the complaints, according to the office, have to do with officers’ verbal interactions with the public.
“That’s the most common, it’s not use of force, or bias, or racist behavior,” said Bob Swartzwelder, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, the union which represents the city’s roughly 900 officers. “It’s the officer being rude. It’s been pretty consistent for the past five years.”
One common solution to the distrust between police and the community is to prioritize racial and ethnic diversity in the police force. But the Peduto administration -- like other administrations before it -- has struggled to do so.
As of 2019, the most recent figures available, Black officers made up about 12 percent of the department -- roughly half their share of the city’s population -- whereas white officers made up about 85 percent.
Over the years, the city has undertaken numerous efforts to increase the applicant pool, and police data shows the city receives a good deal of applications from non-white candidates. In 2018, for example, the city received 112 out of 608 applications from people identifying as racial minorities. But the next year, there were only a total of 6 Black and Latino officers out of 89 total recruits.
Swartzwelder said the application process takes between 12 and 18 months, “and many people drop out before they see it all the way through.” And he says even once Black officers are hired, they often depart for other departments because other municipalities “value what they bring: talent, qualifications and fill the diversity requirements.”
Gainey says an easy fix would be to use the Black officers on the force to reach out to other candidates.
“What we need to do is begin a recruiting program to talk about how we get more African-American cops, Latino cops, Asian, LGBTQ cops on our forces,” Gainey said. “We need to make sure that the police department is reflective of the communities in which we live.”
The Peduto administration says it has already adopted a mentorship program in 2017, and plans to expand it using Community Engagement Officers. It said the police bureau also partners with historically Black colleges and universities during recruitment, and it launched a Public Safety Academy program at the predominantly Black Westinghouse Academy, which is designed to encourage students to train as first responders. The program’s goal, the administration says, is “to create a pipeline” of talent for future hiring.
Some critics say that ultimately, the answer is fewer police.
Activist and 1Hood Media CEO Jasiri X puts too much money into policing, and not enough into initiatives that address disparities, like the mayor’s Office of Equity, whose mission is to make the city more liveable across racial and economic lines.
The city’s budget for 2021 directs over $106 million toward police, while just $1.3 million goes to the Office of Equity. The city notes that it supports equity in other ways: Through the $5 million in Stop the Violence funding, the city intends to support community health and violence prevention.
Those efforts are unlikely to satisfy critics like Jasiri, however.
“Half of Black people in Pittsburgh are teetering on poverty, barely getting by, but yet as a city, for every dollar we spend, 30 cents goes to police,” he said. “And these police inherently aren’t there to protect [Black people]. Like the city actually has money, enough to give resources our community desperately needs, but spends it on police.”
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