“We Thought You Had Our Back”

After Zone 5 Commander Timothy O’Connor criticized the Pittsburgh Police Department at a meeting last month, a copy of a New Pittsburgh Courier article featuring his comments was allegedly slid under the door of his office. The words “We Thought You Had Our Back” were written on it.

The article detailed coverage of a meeting between O’Connor, State Rep. Ed Gainey, Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess, and other members of the community, where O’Connor criticized some of his department’s actions and the controversial arrest of schoolteacher Dennis Henderson by officer Jonathan Gromek on June 26.

“I think that’s more an issue of officers feeling that the commander should support them in every decision they make,” said Police Chief Regina McDonald. “Commander O’Connor had made some comments in regard to officer Gromek. He was giving his opinion and I think that’s where they thought Gromek wasn’t supported.”

The Courier received an anonymous letter claiming officers at Zone 5 made 100 copies of the Courier article and put one in each of their fellow officers’ mailboxes. The copy with the words, “We Thought You Had Our Back,” reportedly written in pink highlighter, was reserved for Commander O’Connor.

The letter claims this action is an example of “issues” at the Zone 5 police department, which covers neighborhoods such as Homewood, East Liberty, and Lincoln Lemington. The zone received unwelcome attention as a result of the June incident where Henderson was taken to jail for having a verbal disagreement with 7-year-veteran officer Gromek, who Henderson said nearly hit him with his vehicle while driving past.

“There are racial tensions going on within Zone 5. A lot of young White male officers who hate minorities,” the letter said.

“We have no indication of that,” McDonald said in response to the anonymous allegations. “No one at any of the community meetings I have been to has made any complaints. At no time did I see any suggestion that there was racial issues between the community and officers.”

McDonald said officers receive training on community policing and cultural diversity. When asked about the Henderson incident, and whether it was an example of “racial issues,” she said the case is still under OMI investigation.

“We have to be very careful about saying what is and what is not in someone’s mind. I don’t think the police chief can speak to the mentality of each officer. And I don’t think the community can speak to what’s in the mind of each officer. But what I would like to point out is the actions of the officers and that these actions are carried out against primarily African-American males. Now whether a person is racist I couldn’t say. But there is a lot of stereotypical thinking when it comes to African-American males in low income communities,” said Brandi Fisher, president of the Alliance for Police Accountability in regards to the anonymous allegations and Chief McDonald’s response. “The first step of curing any problem is first admitting it and I think the Chief’s response proves we have a long way to go.”

In addition to the Henderson incident, Zone 5 receives regular attention as the area with the highest incidence of violent crime in the city. There were four shootings in the zone over the course of a four-day period in August. And in July, a police officer was the target in a shooting.
According to the 2012 Annual Report, the zone has more “park and walks,” when an officer parks their patrol vehicle and conducts a foot patrol, than any other. These are designed to give the community and the officer a better chance to positively interact with one another, in order to improve community police relations.


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