As the news of the sentencing of former Police Chief Nathaniel Harper has broken across the city of Pittsburgh, we might do well to consider the interlocking networks of irresponsibility and mismanagement and corruption that a far larger, long-standing system made possible.
A few weeks ago, I spoke with Police Chaplain John Welch about his own concerns and perceptions of the drastic reforms in policing that need to be made. He said, “Nate Harper had a strong heart for the community.” Our former Chief certainly seems to have betrayed his own good intentions. Although he’s done much good for the community, the temptations to personal profit and neglect enabled by our current policing systems seemed to have proved stronger than his heart.
But is it constructive that it is mainly Harper that is currently bearing the fullest brunt of formal legal consequences, even as the larger problems in our policing system continue with sometimes grievous impact on our most vulnerable communities, on men and women and children that are too often treated as though they were insurgents rather than Pittsburghers?
A couple of days ago on Essential Pittsburgh our new Mayor Bill Peduto laid out his intentions for Public Safety reforms, noting that healing the breakdown in police-community relations must be a central priority of both Public Safety Director and a new Police Chief. As both Law Professor David Harris and Police Detective Sheldon Williams underlined in earlier conversations, repairing that long-time breach means deep systemic and cultural change within the Police Bureau, not just a change in Chiefs. While John Welch asserts that the Mayor must take a crucial leadership role, he also argues that no one man or woman or Mayor can make these changes alone. Welch calls us all to account to put pressure on both the Mayor and all our elected leaders who must exercise checks and balances on police power.
Welch notes the negative impacts when the Fraternal Order of Police resists such oversight and accountability, with special note of the cases of Dennis Henderson and Jordan Miles. And he emphasizes that we must address the far larger networks of racism, inequitable power, exploitative privilege, and poverty that literally weave matters of life and death every single day in Pittsburgh.
“I actually think that the word democracy is evaporating from our lexicon,” Welch said, “… Money is buying Washington, it’s buying Harrisburg, it’s buying Grant St…” The only antidote, he says, is for all of us to take responsibility.
Audio of conversation with Welch: 24 minutes