by A.J. Ross

Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper made himself available to questions from Homewood residents at the YMCA Monday night in an effort to improve the lines of communication between police and community members.

The town hall meeting was sponsored by several organizations including the Black Political Empowerment Project, Alliance for Police Accountability, Black & White Reunion, and Western PA Black Political Assembly.


Chief Harper wasted no time after a short introduction, immediately addressing the recent rash of violent shootings across the city.

“Lives that are being lost aren’t just a statistic, aren’t just a number,” Harper said. “There are family members, there’s loved ones, and no one sees the pain that these people are going through.”

Pittsburgh police have had their hands full over the last week in particular with the shooting death of 17-year-old Elijah Washington, who was found under the Larimer Avenue Bridge; the homicide of jazz and blues musician Leroy Wofford; and a shooting in Garfield on Sunday which left two other men wounded.

“I knew Mr. Wofford very well, he was a very talented blues singer and I enjoyed going and listening to him…so when I heard he had got shot yes it touched home,” said Harper.

The ongoing violence was an issue that touched home as well for the crowd of nearly 30 concerned citizens, who relayed personal stories of loved ones lost to violence and also demanded answers from police about the supply of guns on the streets.

“If we knew how they were getting the guns we would come up with a remedy or strategic plan to stop them,” Harper said. “It is an epidemic the violence that is occurring, and we can’t arrest our way out of it. We’ve known that and that’s why it’s going to take all of us working together.”

One of the resolutions proposed in the meeting to offset some of the recent violence was to have more officers get out of their patrol cars and “walk the beat” in an effort to get to know the people living in the communities they serve. It is an idea Harper fully supports but emphasized it must be a tag-team effort between police and neighbors.

“The community, not just one or two people, but the community needs to spend an hour with that officer as they walk the beat. That way the officer can see what issues, quality of life issues, people are concerned about,” Harper said.

A sign-up sheet passed among the crowd garnered 14 signatures of neighbors willing to walk with police in Zone 5, which encompasses a large portion of the East End including Homewood.

“Obviously the whole issue of police community relations is a focus of frustration both on the part of the police and on the part of the community,” said Tim Stevens, chairman of B-PEP. “The fact that we got 14 people committed to literally walk with the police at some future date is a good start.”

Walking the beat may also be a start to bridging the gap community members claim is clearly visible between police and Black males in particular.

“I get pulled over a lot,” said 28 year-old Jermaine Johnson, a bio-engineer with no criminal history. “My concerns are with the community interactions with the police force and vice versa, and I think right now both relationships are fragmented.”

The recent mistrial in the case of Jordan Miles, the young Homewood man beaten by three White police officers in January 2010, has also left a lot of community wounds unhealed.

While Harper declined to comment on the Jordan Miles case with litigation still pending, he urged anyone with complaints against an officer to report them immediately.

“If a citizen feels they have been treated wrongly by a police officer they have to report it, that is the very first step, it has to be documented,” he said.

Elizabeth Pittinger, the executive director of the Citizens Police Review Board, also answered questions from the public and discussed how the board gets involved with investigations of police misconduct.

However with only two African-Americans in the most recent police recruiting class, Harper admits there is room for improvement at many levels.

“There’s things that we’re working on and we’re still trying to get the door open so more minorities can join the police force,” Harper said. “The goal in mind is I wish it (the number of African-American officers) would have tripled yesterday, but we’re working towards getting that goal as quickly as possible.”

In addition to diversifying the ranks, Harper hopes to have the entire force go through the Disproportionate Minority Contact training curriculum, which only a handful of officers have completed thus far this year.

The curriculum specifically targets how officers interact with young adults, and uses role play and other methods to share perspectives between the two groups.

“In my experience in working with police officials in the community it is best to have communication, communication breeds understanding,” said Brandi Fisher, executive director of the Alliance for Police Accountability.

“I’m elated that he (Chief Harper) had the courage and the willingness to come out and face the community, especially in zone 5, after the Jordan Miles incident,” said Fisher, who hopes this will be the first of many meetings to follow. “It tells us the chief is willing to solve the problems.”

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