Citizen’s Police Academy – and the School of the Streets

Today is the first day at work for our new Police Chief, Cameron McLay. Our Mayor Bill Peduto has accomplished one of the primary recommendations of the Public Safety Transition Team, the hiring of a Chief with a demonstrated commitment to respectful community policing.

Building relationships is at the core of Mr. McLay’s ideas for solving most of the bureau’s problems. He said “bridging the divide” between officers and the community will be one of his top priorities. …officers in his words, should “police like human beings, not let the badge become the barrier.” (Liz Navratil, PPG, 9/6/14)

If Chief McLay is to be successful, his efforts for such bridge-building will need to be both closely watched and actively supported by community members from the other side of the divides – we must work to connect both with the police as fallible, respectworthy human beings and with our fallible, respectworthy neighbors across the many chasms that too often fragment us from each other and our common concerns.

Most of the police officers who patrol our streets are Pittsburgh’s grandchildren, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers – raised in a city that has systematically discriminated against black men and women and children for generations, the city that has been called “the  Mississippi of the north.” Too often their behaviors under the extreme stresses of policing quite simply reflect how they were raised, how the larger wheels within wheels of institutionalized racism that continue to grind on at all levels of community life, on the streets and in the halls of government.

Like Chief McLay, I’m a transplant to Pittsburgh. I came for a nonfiction writing degree in 2006, determined to recount my yearlong Vanessa painting at the Art Housedeployment as a soldier in Iraq back in 2003-2004 but was pulled back into the present by the struggles I saw going on all around me. Those struggles all too often echoed what I had witnessed in a war zone, as I perceived that even the most responsible and engaged of Pittsburghers were often treated as though they were insurgents rather than potential partners in protecting and serving their communities.

I was very impressed by Chief McLay’s forthright acknowledgement of his need to study the Bureau of Police and to meet with community groups before he made specific recommendations for change.  I must also work to bridge the still-enormous chasms in my own knowledge of this community that I’ve come to care for so much. This blog has been the beginning of that work to study both Pittsburgh’s history and current life – and I will continue to meet for conversations with my fellow Pittsburghers who from both outside and inside the Police Bureau are striving to understand how we together created our current situation and how we might together take better care of each other.

Last week, I began a new chapter of that study as I attended my first day of the Citizen’s Police Academy. When Sergeant Eric Kroll, supervisor at the Police Academy asked us to introduce ourselves, I was struck by how many of my fellow Citizens lived in the ring suburbs, and was particularly surprised by how many of them were real estate agents or real estate brokers – why that might be I will most surely be asking and thinking about in future posts. None of my fellow students were black. And almost all of them expressed the wish to become better informed citizens. Sergeant Kroll presented an overview of the departments we would visit and what we would be taught about in the fifteen weeks of the Citizen’s Academy:

  • History of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police
  • Introduction to the legal system/criminal justice system: overview of the PA Crimes Code, Vehicle Code, Rules of Criminal Procedure
  • Use of force: laws, policies, and procedures that regulate a police officer’s use of force
  • Emergency Operations Center
  • Pittsburgh Police Intelligence Unit
  • Citizen Police Review Board
  • Police K-9 unit: role, training and utilization of police K-9 dogs and handlers
  • Traffic enforcement
  • Special Weapons and Tactical Team (SWAT)
  • Firearms Tracking Unit
  • Office of Municipal Investigations
  • Crime Scene Investigations
  • Animal Law Enforcement
  • Explosive devices: detection and responses
  • Narcotics Unit
  • Safe vehicle operation
  • Firearms safety

So much valuable information to learn and cover, but no mention of three areas that continue to dramatically affect policing in Pittsburgh and that I will continue to research alongside the official syllabus.

Today is Chief McLay’s first day on the job. It is also the day that black citizens across Pittsburgh wait for a verdict in the Leon Fordcriminal prosecution of Leon Ford. That extreme use of force happened three blocks away from my home on Collins Ave in Highland Park, at the corner of Stanton and Farragut, where Leon Ford was shot and paralyzed. That shooting happened just two blocks away from the elementary school where so many of my neighbors kids learn about real life, most certainly not just from books, but by observing adult behavior of all sorts..

I’m sure I’ll learn so much that is highly valuable, both from them and from the police officers and officials who teach our official syllabus. But it does seem clear I’ll also have to keep learning in the school of the streets to hear the fuller story that my neighbors have to tell.

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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