One year ago, Michael Rosfeld, a white East Pittsburgh police officer, fatally shot Antwon Rose, a black unarmed teenager. In the immediate aftermath, many blamed local officials for Rosfeld’s actions and called for the small borough to make big changes.
Borough council member Mary Carol Kennedy still remembers the public outcry at council’s first meeting after the shooting: “a lot of anger, mainly. A lot of blame toward the borough council and the police department.”
“It’s an open wound, and that’s how it felt,” she said.
Kennedy has lived in East Pittsburgh for more than 40 years. She said that before the shooting, she had no idea there was such distrust of police.
“It’s more personal now than it was before because I, myself, have not had a problem ever with any police officer anywhere,” she said. “It’s just important for me to know as a public official that everybody’s experience isn’t mine.”
But the shooting shifted more than just her perspective of police and community relations: “The biggest thing it’s changed is we no longer have our own police department, and for me, that’s very sad. I don’t think anybody wants a community without their own police department.”
Council voted unanimously last fall to dissolve the borough’s police force. Prior to that, East Pittsburgh officers had worked part time and were paid $15 an hour, with no benefits. After the shooting, citizens demanded more training and oversight, but those were changes East Pittsburgh couldn’t afford to make.
“We couldn’t do anything different than what we were doing,” Kennedy said. “Which is what a lot of other [small] departments are also doing. But it’s not as if this is a new problem.”
Police departments are one of the biggest costs for local municipalities.
“Police services, unlike almost all other services, are 24/7 every single day of the year you have to have someone scheduled,” said University of Pittsburgh professor George Dougherty, who studies small municipalities in the region.
It wasn’t always so difficult to pay for policing. Many of the region’s small municipalities, particularly in the Mon Valley, were built around industries like steel and glass and coal.
“When these communities were created … there were plenty of resources to [pay] for full-time officers and just run a department the way we would normally expect,” Dougherty said. “As those communities have struggled since the industry left and the populations left with it, they’re left with a much smaller tax base. It really has far more to do with the resources available than a community desire to provide less police service.”
The budget for East Pittsburgh’s police department was $380,000, a significant portion of the borough’s annual budget of roughly $1 million, according to borough council president Denny Simon.
East Pittsburgh is now in talks with other municipalities about sharing a department, but that’s a long way off. For one thing, Simon said, “The towns that were interested, they had the same problems we did.” Even before the shooting, “We’d been talking to other communities – and the other communities were in the same boat as us.”
State police plan to patrol the area indefinitely, but some residents are impatient with state troopers, who don’t enforce local ordinances.
“That’s the unfortunate part when you asked us to come in,” State Police Sergeant Zach Ryland told residents at this month’s borough council meeting. “We have so many members within our department, within our station, and we cover a large area.”
Ashley Kain, 22, of East Pittsburgh said she’s called police multiple times about loud music and late night parties, but nothing was done.
“It’s to the point now where my neighbors just give up on calling [the police] because they don’t believe they’re capable of solving an infraction such as that,” Kain said.
But for residents like Jonathan Reyes, 31, the state police are better than a local force.
“People are happy with the police,” he said. While he agreed that it can take a while for troopers to arrive, “I think a lot of the hostility has fallen because local ordinances aren’t being enforced. I think [the borough council] should take that as a lesson! Your people were happier when the ordinances that you guys created weren’t being enforced.”
Reyes supports the idea of a regionalized force, but he wants oversight from a civilian police review board, either through a proposed countywide review board or a regional version.
“If the county says no to [a review board], that doesn’t mean we have to say no to it,” Reyes said.
Reyes emphasized another big shift in East Pittsburgh: While the borough council is all white, the racial makeup of East Pittsburgh has changed dramatically in recent decades. The black population doubled between the 2000 and 2010 census. Reyes wanted council to reflect that shift – and ended up running for a seat this spring.
“I wasn’t intending to run myself,” he said. “I was looking for somebody who would run who would properly reflect the community and increase transparency but nobody wanted to do it.”
Reyes and another African-American candidate both won their primaries. Reyes hopes a more diverse council will reduce tension between old and new residents, between people of color and police.
Council member Mary Carol Kennedy says the shooting has changed East Pittsburgh forever. But Reyes says those changes began long before the shooting even happened.
“I don’t believe that it will never be the same,” he said. “It might not never be the same for them, but it’s not their community.”