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Mayor Ed Gainey promised police changes, but Pittsburgh residents differ over way forward

Demonstrators walk through Pittsburgh streets during a social justice protest in the summer of 2020.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Demonstrators walk through Pittsburgh streets during a social justice protest in the summer of 2020.

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey has promised residents that there would be changes in how the city's police force carries out its duties, especially in Black neighborhoods — and his election last year was propelled in part by critics of longstanding police tactics.

But since being elected mayor, he has proceeded cautiously, replacing the city's public safety director but leaving chief Scott Schubert in place. A mayoral transition team is soliciting public input for changes to policing as well as other aspects of city operations.

But even in neighborhoods that Gainey says are over-policed, there are different views on the best way forward.

Zinna Scott, a lifelong resident of Homewood, said things have already gotten better in her neighborhood.

It "has gotten much better than what it was,” said Scott, who is president of Operation Better Block in Homewood.

“It's not strange to go down the street when the weather's better and see officers stopped and helping a kid with his bike or playing basketball or doing different things in the community with the youth,” she said. “They've gotten so they are more attentive and open with the public. But at the same time, the public has to be open with them also.”

But a community leader in Knoxville, meanwhile, says her neighborhood gets too much attention from police, and much of it is the wrong kind.

Sharlee Ellison is president of the Knoxville Neighborhood Council. She said she has seen police harass Black residents for years. Her own son, she said, was once harassed by police while he and a friend were on her porch. She said police did not leave until they realized she was the homeowner.

Ellison said that such experiences are common in her neighborhood.

“I’ve seen five police cars pull a young man over … because his tail light was out,” she said. “Just because you’re in a Black community and you see young Black men standing around, you think, ‘They have to be up to no good.’ They can’t be just standing around talking about a football game. They have to be dealing drugs.”

But at other times, she said, police are less responsive to public-safety threats than they would be in white neighborhoods.

“They can drive down the street and harass our kids when they’re not doing anything, they do that well,” she said. “But if we call and say we see a house on our street that we think is dealing drugs … their excuse is we don’t have enough police.”

“You have all of these different electronics, spot shotters, cameras, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stuff,” she said. “But if a neighbor calls and says, 'I see a car pull up here at the same time every day and he's meeting the same person,' send a policeman there.”

Still, Ellison is wary of efforts by city council to address the issue. Late last year council passed, and then-Mayor Bill Peduto signed, a measure to ban officers from pulling people over for minor traffic violations like a broken tail light or a lapsed inspection. A more recent bill would require officers to document their reason for stopping a pedestrian. Both bills were brought forth by Councilor Ricky Burgess, who said the measures were attempts to reduce tension between Black people and the police. Ellison said the bills still won’t make a difference.

“Some kind of way they’ll prove that [the legislation] is not working,” she said.

The Gainey administration hasn’t put its own stamp on policing yet. Last month he announced the formation of a transition team that will bring him policy recommendations in April: One part of that effort is a "community health and safety," whose name reflects Gainey's belief that violence should be addressed proactively and holistically.

Miracle Jones, a policy and advocacy director with 1Hood Media, is part of the transition team effort. She said some of her own recommendations include making it a fireable offense if an officer is affiliated with white supremacy groups, and changing the way police do investigations, especially for cases that deal with officer-involved deaths.

But while Gainey has said he would like to see more "community policing" efforts that could help officers be a more friendly and familiar presence, Jones said police should stay out of communities whenever possible.

“[Gainey] believes that police officers, as a part of the community, should be out and about, people should know who they are. They should be walking the routes, they should be responding to community events by being participants and showing up,” she said. “And there's a fundamental disagreement that I hold about having officers show up to things because they're still agents of the state.”

Jones acknowledged that her recommendations may be out of step with those favored by Gainey and other transition team members. She said she asked him, "Are you sure you would like me to be on your commission? You know, I have you know what people see as very bold, progressive ideas.

"And [Gainey] was like, 'Yes, as a as a mayor, I don't expect you to agree with everything. I don't expect you to just be like a yes person. You know, I expect you to have differing opinions and alternative viewpoints, and I expect you to disagree with me.'”

David Harris is a member of the task force and a law professor at University of Pittsburgh. He said the transition team and Gainey have a tough job to do when it comes to changing police.

“I think what he's looking for are ways to be more effective, to have the police doing what they're good at and what we need them for,” Harris said. “And to address these outstanding issues, these things that have been problems for some time in an effective and concrete way.”