Pittsburgh’s acting police chief and Mayor Bill Peduto were two panelists in a discussion on police/community relations as part of the Mayor’s Night on Air at the Community Broadcast Center Wednesday evening.
Tensions have been high between police and the black community in Pittsburgh due to issues that have been building up for decades. Now, Peduto said work is underway to change that.
“We have done more than just hiring a police chief; we have created a culture change within Pittsburgh,” Peduto said.
Peduto cited his hiring of Public Safety Director Stephen Bucar and bringing in a new chief from outside the ranks of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. He also said through years of politics in the department, control over the organization and morale has taken a hit. Acting Police Chief Cameron McLay said he has been welcomed by rank-and-file officers, but he knows change won’t occur overnight.
“Culture is a slow thing to change. It takes years and years and years to change culture,” McLay said. “But effective leaders working together can change climate a lot faster, so that’s what we are trying to do here.”
To start to tackle the issue, Peduto said three critical areas within policing need to be reformed. The first is how officers are recruited.
“How we train those officers and that training is not just something you do at an academy, it’s a constant part of it,” he said. “The next part is a combination – it’s how we promote officers so that they believe, in the bureau itself, that it’s fair, it’s not being done for political purposes – and how we retain them.”
McLay said training is also a huge factor, and that it’s not a one-off thing – but something that should occur throughout an officer’s career.
The issue of police and community relations is largely seen as a problem in Pittsburgh’s black community. Some have voiced concern over racism in the force and alleged that black Pittsburghers are treated differently, and largely unfairly, by police.
“Race, of course, is an issue,” said McLay. “It impacts on how we all perceive one another, and I think that’s one of the powerful points of dialogue we can start having – having members of the community come together with law enforcement and start having that conversation.”
That conversation, said McLay, should come from both sides, how community members see and perceive officers in their communities and what the officers see and perceive. Another panelist, Brandi Fisher, president of the Alliance for Police Accountability, said conversations will be a start.
“You have to have conversations, and there has to be some healing and progress done before you can expect people to open their arms and say, ‘We accept police walking down the streets in our community,'" Fisher said. "I think it’s a good thing, and it’s necessary, but there has to be many steps taken before that."
McLay said work is underway to improve police training and recruit police officers who believe in the community and the work of the police in keeping the peace. He cautioned that Pittsburgh could be the next Ferguson, Mo. He said before there is an emergency situation, and to prevent wide civil unrest, the lines of communication between law enforcement and a range of community groups needs to remain open.
The forum, which was broadcast live, was hosted by Essential Pittsburgh's Paul Guggenheimer. Former police officer Sheldon Williams also participated as a panelist.