Growing up in the old Saint Clair Village public housing development, Darnell Sains would often have to walk around Mt. Oliver to go shopping. And he was never allowed to walk though the borough unaccompanied, because Blacks had been told they weren’t wanted or needed.
Now, 40 years later, Sains is needed—at least the borough council thinks he is. It voted him in as council president June 19, after the outgoing president had nominated someone else.
“She wanted someone else, and everyone—including that someone else—voted for me,” he said. “I’m the first and only African-American to be elected president.”
What they voted for is a new way of doing business, a new attitude and a new vision in a borough still dealing with racial tension and beset by the scandal of a former police chief charged with using public funds for himself.
Because that case is ongoing—as are sexual harassment charges filed against the former chief by a former female officer—Sains declined direct comment.
“I will say he reigned in Mt. Oliver for a long time under what I’ll call the good-old-boy system,” he said. “We believe we have a better force now, with a good portion having come on since he left in October 2012.”
There are, Sains admitted, still both real and perceived issues with the force. There is the real problem of diversity. Currently, all of the Mt. Oliver police are White males. Sains said he will work to address that, but part of it results from high turnover.
“With places like Monroeville starting officers at $40,000 it’s tough,” he said. “We pay well, but can’t pay that.”
Then there is the perceived issue: the police are out to get Blacks, particularly young Black males.
“All Black men in America think the police are out to get them, so it’s no different in Mt. Oliver,” he said. “We had the incident where Charles Dixon was killed during an arrest—positional asphyxiation, they called it.
But we have a better force now.”
The way to solve these tensions, Sains said, is through community, by people meeting people. The older, White, residential population is quiet and stays in their homes mostly. The younger Black population that have mostly moved in from the closed St. Clair Village projects is out in the street, playing, and playing loud music late at night because that’s what they know, he said.
“There is a way to be more harmonious—it’s meet people. We have a Halloween bash, we have car cruises—come out and meet your neighbors,” said Sains. “Ignorance leads to fear, which leads to stupidity. I don’t want the old people to go away, I want harmony.”
As for a place for young people to blow off steam, there isn’t one. The borough has a fantastic baseball field, but it is unusable because the drainage system requires extensive and expensive replacement, pools are seasonal. What it needs, Sains said, is a community center with a basketball court.
“This is the only place I’ve lived in that doesn’t have a community center,” he said. “And basketball teaches teamwork, leadership, you can do it all year round and it’s tiring—and you want tired kids. So, you don’t know anyone with a spare $3 million do you?”
Actually, Sains said there are investors looking at the borough.
“They like our attitude, but not what they see—particularly with crime,” he said. “But 67 percent of our crime is committed by non-residents, and most of it is confined to 100 to 200 blocks of Brownsville Road. That’s going to be cleaned up—in every sense of the word, the riffraff, the drugs, the debris—that’s a promise. We need a more handshake-friendly attitude with our neighboring city communities; Carrick, Beltzhoover, Bon Air, Knoxville. We’re a gateway community, both ways–coming from the South Hills or from the city. But we can be so much more.”
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