Williams hopes to bridge police/community gap

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Pending Pittsburgh city council approval, Sheldon Williams will be appointed to the Citizens Police Review Board in time for the May regular meeting. It’s a far cry from his first encounter with the board in 1999—as a defendant.

Williams, then a patrol officer working out of the Zone 1 station on the North Side, and his partner responded to a 911 call of a neighbor harassing patrons of the Mattress Factory.

“Apparently this had been an ongoing thing, so we went over to warn him, you know–we’re getting complaints about you, so please stop or we’re going to arrest you,” Williams recalled. “He was in his home. He came out on the porch, yelling obscenities, telling us to get the ‘f’ off his property, and he kicks me. So at that point, we had to arrest him.”

As this individual awaited trial on aggravated assault, Williams recalled, he got a stern letter from the CPRB, complete with “you must appear” language. He was the subject of a complaint made by the arrestee.

“At the time, it was pretty new, and all I knew about it was from fellow officers who all hated it. There was a lot of political pressure to go after ‘aggressive officers.’ I called them up and they were so accommodating, it was totally different from my expectations, from what I’d heard from my fellow officers. I told them I had an active case with this individual. And they said oh we didn’t understand—keep us apprised. That was a moment for me. They are not there as an antagonistic group. They’re respectful of process.”

Since then, Williams said he was impressed to see CPRB Executive Director Elizabeth Pittinger and board members visit both the SWAT and bomb squads, as well as the training academy—all departments where Williams served as a trainer—to understand what officers do and how they are supposed to do it.

Recently, the board determined Pittsburgh officer Jonathan Gromec violated his training and procedures and was guilty of “an egregious act of misconduct” when he wrongfully arrested Dennis Henderson in June.

Incidents such as that, the Jordan Miles arrest, the Leon Ford shooting, and most recently a fatal shooting of suspect Adrian K. Williams after a traffic stop by an officer with whom he’d had a previous run-in—all involving officers working from the Zone 5 station—have led some to conclude there is a siege mentality with White officers patrolling the city’s Black neighborhoods. The NAACP Pittsburgh Unit has called for an investigation of Zone 5.

“I don’t think it’s a department-wide problem. I see it as individualized,” Williams said. “It does occur, this ‘us versus them’ mentality. It’s easy to develop an attitude of indifference as an officer. If all you’re looking for is drugs and guns, and you see the same thing day after day with nothing to challenge that experience, you’ll stop treating people like people. It can happen with any race or gendered officer.”

Officers, he said, need that buddy system, a partner to intercede if they are getting too emotionally involved in a given situation. Too often, officers patrol alone. Gromec was alone, as was Christopher Kertis, the officer who shot Adrian Williams.

“We entrust officers—I now entrust officers—with great power. We expect officers to do their responsibilities following set criteria. We do not want maltreatment. What we want is proper treatment,” he said. “When an armed gunman defies an order and you have to use certain force, the public will readily support that. What they don’t support is you targeting everybody because they look a certain way or act a certain way and think that that’s the scenario they could be in to justify your actions—that’s unacceptable. Every time that happens we lose percentages of trust.  Part of the board’s responsibility is rebuilding that trust.”

Williams said he understands why the FOP stands behind its officers. It’s supposed to. But it shouldn’t support instances like active officers trading sexual favors for help with cases, or former officers doing prostitution in Moon Township.

“Why would you stand behind that,” he said. “I wouldn’t want my FOP dollars going to defend action that is obviously unethical, illegal or immoral.”

He also says the city and the bureau need to do a better job of showing young African-Americans that police work is a viable career path and boost Black recruitment.

“Affirmative action was supposed to take out the subjectivity, but it ends up being a crutch and a barrier to doing what’s proper,” said Williams. “I wouldn’t want something given to me based on the color of my skin. I want to know I earned a promotion. Conversely, I don’t want to be eliminated from the opportunity because of my skin.”

Williams said some of the physical tests for fire, police and EMS might be biased against women. In fact one—involving takedowns—he got changed for that reason. But if the job has a valid physical requirement, then you have to meet it. He also has a recommendation to eliminate the bias that remains in oral interview process, however. They would be blind.

“And you could mask the voices electronically so that only the content was rated, not whether someone speaks with an Asian accent, or Pittsburghese or Ebonics,” he said.

Ultimately, Williams said he retired to take his current associate pastor position at Allegheny Center Alliance Church because it was about connecting to the residents of the North Side and the city.

“I love police work, I could go back this day. But I felt a draw to connect to the community,” he said. “And I hope the CPRB helps me bridge that. It’s a bridging I want, a unified effort of police working to understand the community and the community to understand the police.”

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

 

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