Audio: Police power over life and liberty: “…the most powerful positions in our society…”

By Helen Gerhardt

Sheldon WilliamsRetired Police Detective Sheldon Williams still finds himself speaking in the present tense when he reflects on the responsibilities of a police officer. He has served the City of Pittsburgh as a paramedic, SWAT Team member, certified bomb technician, WMD/Terrorism Coordinator, and as a trainer in the Police Academy for nearly every skill taught.  He continues to serve Pittsburgh and all of Pennsylvania as Emergency Management Specialist in the Pennsylvania Air National Guard.

As a former member of the Integrity Unit, he still feels “burdened” by past corruption and by continuing misuse of the public’s trust in our police forces.  As a black officer, he has seen the impacts of the whitening of the police force. Williams applauds many of the directions that Mayor Bill Peduto has committed to, and offers his own expertise and experience to the continuing effort to make those promised reforms a reality.

He has also witnessed the power of the Fraternal Order of Police to stand for the basic rights of its members, but also to resist civilian oversight and directives to change that are vital to public safety. Although he himself served many secondary details for extra money, he suggests that our “consumption-driven society” has motivated many police to take on roles that are not in the best interest of public safety, with overwork and stress leading to poorer performance, defensively aggressive behavior and ethical conflicts of interest.  Such conflicts of interest thus far seem to have continued under the present administration, with the FOP defending both secondary details and moonlighting.

Williams points out these extras sources of income are often justified by officers as recompense for one of the lower police bureau pay rates, for some of the most difficult work in the country. But, too many times, Williams has also witnessed the impacts of stress and lack of adequate staffing in vulnerable communities that need police support the most, as well as a lack of basic respect toward civilians that is likely to escalate the danger for all – this conversation bridges to many of the observations of police behavior made by artist and Homewood resident Vanessa German in an earlier post.

Williams and I spoke about how hard it is to address needed changes with fellow men and women who lay their lives on the line every day, who too many times are given special license by the public to abuse their power because of the physical courage that they demonstrate. He agreed to speak with me because: “My heart’s desire is to participate where I can make the most useful contribution(s) for police/community relations.”

Audio recording of conversation with Sheldon Williams:

About helengerhardt1

Helen Gerhardt: Pittsburgher, writer, member of the Commission on Human Relations: nothing written at this blog reflects the views or positions of the Commission.

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