On June 7, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police graduated its most recent recruiting class. Among the class of 25, there was not one African-American graduate.
With a police force that is becoming increasingly less diverse, due to the lack of African-Americans in recent recruiting classes, many worry today’s officers are not equipped to effectively deal with the African-American community. In an effort to address this lack of diversity and the resulting diminished cultural understanding, the Pittsburgh Police recently hosted a discussion between some of the city’s at-risk African-American youth and law enforcement officials.
“This is a setting where they will get to dialogue with Black youth. Training like this helps bridge that gap where we don’t have diversified officers,” said Police Chief Nate Harper. “We were very fortunate that we have a new class that just graduated and they can take this out into the community.”
The meeting held at Duquesne University on June 8 was between the newest recruits and Black youth, was the first of it’s kind in Pittsburgh. Eighty-five percent of the youth at the meeting have been involved in the juvenile justice system or prevention programs. The Disproportionate Minority Contact subcommittee of the Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Committee, a state advisory group, prompted the initiative.
“This training is not only about safety for our officers, but safety for our youth as well,” Harper said. “We look to serve all of our citizens and our youth are the next generation of leaders.”
Despite an open invitation for the youth to air their grievances with the police, many of the youth did not take the opportunity to speak up. One young man did report witnessing his friend being “choked” by an officer after his friend spit on the ground in front of the officer. One young woman also reported being tased by a police officer.
“Police officers think they can do whatever they want because they think I don’t know my rights,” said the young woman who was from the Hill District and is now attending college. “If I just go with what the cops say, what is the point of having rights?”
The adults in the group were more willing to talk in an effort to repair the broken image the youth had of law enforcement. One officer said police officers do not back up fellow officers when they break the law, but when the youth were asked how many of them believed this, only one raised their hand.
The new recruits and the youth engaged in a series of role-playing exercises where they acted out a situation where police confront a group of youth hanging out on a street corner. The youth, who acted as police officers, and newly graduated recruits, who portrayed youth, acted aggressively confrontational toward each other.
“What gets our young people into worse situations is their attitude,” said one police officer.
The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and the MacArthur Foundation, a non-profit organization which lists juvenile justice reform among its many focuses, developed the forum’s curriculum. Paris Washington, chief inspector of the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Department, led the Pittsburgh discussion and has led similar discussions in Philadelphia.
“Police, you folk do a hell of a job. We’re not trying to tell you how to do your job. We’re just trying to give you an additional tool,” said Washington. “Today we’re going to make history. We’re going to take a ship that was moving in the wrong direction and right it.”
The police department is planning to hold similar one-day trainings throughout the year for the rest of the city’s police officers. The goal is to reduce the number of arrests of African-American youth.
“I think this is outstanding. It’s a program that’s meant to increase accountability with police officers,” said Elliot Howsie, director of the Allegheny County Public Defender’s Office. “It also gives juveniles the chance to learn the dos and don’ts. It ensures that police officers won’t get hurt and juveniles won’t get hurt.”