By Brittany Hailer
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
On July 21, the Pittsburgh Current told the story of Thomas Drake and the years of harassment he endured from a neighbor and a complete unwillingness by the Churchill Police Department to raise a single finger to help him.
A lot has changed in that time, however. Drake’s story has not only led to him finally getting the help he needs but a larger discussion in the borough about both police and community reform.
Drake, a disabled Black Vietnam veteran suffered three years of harassment by his white neighbor. The neighbor called the Churchill Police and municipal authorities on Drake countless times. The reasons for the calls vary, Drake said. Sometimes it was because Drake has a boat in his yard. Sometimes it was because Drake’s dog wandered into the neighbor’s yard. Sometimes it was because Drake played his music too loud while he and his grandchildren planted tomatoes. After his story was first published by Pittsburgh Current, Drake received a letter in the mail from the Allegheny Health Department stating that a neighbor reported rats in his yard.
Because of the calls, Drake had to give his beloved dog to his son. Although the borough has said that Drake can bring his dog back to his home, he says it would break his grandchildren’s hearts to take the dog away from them. He hopes to get a new pet as a service animal.
“I just want the right that he can’t do it again. I want the right to get another dog and the right that he can’t harass me when I get my new dog,” Drake said.
Felicity Williams, a local activist and attorney, has been rallying the community around Drake. She’s connected him with community members and activists such as Fawn Walker Montgomery of Take Action Mon Valley, Leonard Hammond of Hammond Initiative, Eric Howze of No Hero Left Behind, Camile Redman, and Terrence Bennet who have been attending Churchill borough meetings and meeting with Drake at his residence.
The group announced that a march will take place Sunday, Sept 6 in Churchill. Marchers will meet at 3335 William Penn Highway. More details are pending.
“I’m real happy about that. I am going to try and be a part of the march. I’ve got my Black Lives Matter t-shirt and my flag flying,” Drake said.
Pittsburgh Current filed Right To Know requests for police reports and 911 calls regarding Drake’s harassment. Both Allegheny County and Churchill requested 30-day extensions on Aug 3. While the public and Churchill Council also wait for the reports to be released, community members have requested the borough to identify the officers who responded to Drake’s residence. The borough has yet to release that information.
“I just want him to treat me with the respect a human deserves. They know who the two police officers are, and they won’t release that information because they’re scared they’re going to get sued. I just want proper treatment from the borough, I wouldn’t sue them,” Drake said.
Drake’s neighbor has yet to receive any action or fine from the borough or police.
“The pressure they put on me is yet to be put on him. I haven’t seen that,” Drake said, “They have yet to make him do the things they came after me for. But I am not calling the police constantly.”
Enforcement could come down to some ordinances that are not yet in place in the borough. Churchill Council President Jay Dworin was previously working on an ordinance that would impose a $500 fine for calling the police to harass someone based on a protected class, such as race. Because Drake’s neighbor has employed the municipality to harass him, the CAREN (Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies) Ordinance will be expanded to include municipal services as well. If passed, this ordinance will be the first of its kind in Pennsylvania.
“We have made it explicitly clear that Churchill is not the place for the racists, the sexists, or the homophobes,” said Dworin in an interview with Pittsburgh Current, “ If you want an inclusive and progressive community this is your spot. The CAREN ordinance is the tool we can use. Ordinances do just as much work just being on the book—knowing that you’re moving to a community that says, listen, we are not OK with this. If you see what we are doing and think, we don’t want to move to Churchill, we don’t want you anyway.”
Pressure from Williams and others has resulted in some commitments and proposals from Dworin, the borough, and the Churchill Police Department which include:
- Churchill Police Chief Ronald Akerley and Dworin agreed to meet Drake to redress past experiences (By publication of this article, neither Dworin or Akerley have visited Drake at his residence).
- Borough will follow-up on identifying officers who responded to Drake’s residence
- Burough will comply with Right To Know requests.
- Churchill Human Relations Commission, previously inactive due to lack of participants, will be resurrected after 5 Chuchill residents (Two Black men, including Drake, one Black woman and two white women) volunteered. The commision will advice council on human relations and civil rights issues and work to protect residents against discrimation.
- Dworin committed to a listening session for other Churchill residents to share their experience with Churchill police.
- Dworin proposed extending Dash Camera and Body Camera footage retention because there is no footage of the times police responded to Drake’s residence. Currently, non-evidentiary footage is deleted after 30 days.
- Churchill has never had a woman or person of color as a police officer. The police department is working to identify diverse candidates to reflect Churchill’s demographics
During borough meetings, white neighbors who had previously remained silent during Drake’s harassment now advocate for his protection. In an Aug. 10 borough meeting, a white neighbor of Drake’s expressed concern, “I see the police cars almost every day.”
In that same meeting, Dworin said he expected to have the 911 calls and police reports relevant to Drake’s harassment soon. “I will address it. I don’t think they’re in a position to not provide. I don’t know if they recognize the urgency.”
Martell Covington, legal aide to Sen. Jay Costa said in the Aug. 10 meeting, ” The Jay Costa office is extremely interested in what is happening with Mr. Drake…by the time the policy is in place, a call can be made and a life could be lost…this is an issue of life and death.”