Mayor Bill Peduto announced changes to the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police’s protest policy on Friday afternoon, following a week of confrontations between police and demonstrators.
The changes include a new incident commander to oversee protests, as well as additional positions in the civil affairs unit and public safety community engagement. A statement from Peduto said he’s implementing the changes to “make sure that responses to protest activity are not just tactical in nature, but balanced with the essential goals of improving police-community relations and protecting 1st Amendment rights.”
The city’s Police Special Response Teams, which are trained in “crowd-control methods”, will no longer be the primary response units for protests and will only be used in “narrowly-defined situations when absolutely necessary to protect the public health.”
The new policy will also bar police from wearing military-style camouflage uniforms at protests, and “jump out” squads—plainclothes officers using unmarked vehicles to make quick arrests—will also not be allowed during the events.
On Wednesday, Peduto talked with protesters for about 40 minutes on his porch. After talks broke down, Peduto went inside his home. Police called the protest an “unlawful assembly” at 10 p.m., pushing the protesters back to Mellon Park. Officers used pepper spray to disperse the crowd and arrested one person.
Jasiri X with 1Hood said Peduto’s response is “too little, too late.”
“We intended to engage Peduto with a series of demands,” Jasiri said, referring to requested changes made in June by a collective of activists. “At that point we felt it was a beginning point for conversation on how to change policing in Pittsburgh.”
Jasiri said he has asked online since July why police have shown up to protests in riot gear.
“This is a failure for police to engage protesters,” Jasiri said. “We know Peduto, we supported him when he ran. This is why it was weird to me. I didn’t understand why he didn’t want to engage folks. If he had engaged us in the beginning it never would have gotten here.”
Treasure Palmer with Black, Young, and Educated said this is opposite of what the group stands for.
“We advocate for abolishing the police, and I feel like what he is doing right now is a very small fix,” Palmer said. “What I was getting from that was that he would make police presence more heavy.”
Palmer said these are small, temporary fixes to the issue.
“I don’t think we’ll ever feel comfortable with the police,” Palmer said. “I feel like the problem in general is policing. We can reform as much as we want to and we can make these guidelines, … at the end of the day police are still there and things can be escalated in different ways just because they’re there.”
Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich and police chief Scott Schubert said they support Peduto’s changes and will work with the mayor’s office to institute them.
“To the men and women of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, we appreciate the tireless hard work and dedication you demonstrate each and every day, especially under extremely challenging circumstances,” Hissrich said in the emailed statement. “We will do everything in our power to provide you with the leadership you need and deserve during this time.”
Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board, said her group was not involved in the changes, and that, “it’ll be interesting to see how they reorganize. First and foremost has to be the safety of the people in the protest and the people external to the protest.”
Pittinger added: “When there is a peaceful protest, a lawful exhibition of First Amendment rights, there should be no need for police.”
This is a developing story and will be updated.
Marylee Williams and Patrick Doyle contributed to this report.