Guest Op/ED: Policing in Pittsburgh: Can it Work Again?

By October 7, 2020 No Comments

Current Photo by Jake Mysliwczyk

By Brenda Tate
Special to the Pittsburgh Current

My first of many career-shaking experiences would come as I stood for roll-call one day at the old Zone #8 police station in Mt. Washington.

This was the first station I was assigned to after graduating from the police academy. Mt. Washington was as foreign to me as Afghanistan would have been to me at that time. I had never ventured to that side of Pittsburgh in my entire life. This was 1979, so you can probably understand why a Black woman would not have business outside of the safety of the inner-city.

Prior to each tour of duty, we would stand for shift roll call. It was a form of inspection to determine if your uniform was clean, and you were in fact wearing your weapon (many old-timers would sometimes forget their weapons). Duty assignments and radios were then distributed.

Loud banter could be heard throughout the smoke-filled, dilapidated room and phones would be ringing off the hook. Roll call was five rows deep, with a total of five to six men in each row.

As each name echoed, an assignment would be attached to it. Either a two-man vehicle assignment or a one or two-man beat assignment. As we were nearing the end of the roll call, I noticed my name had not been mentioned.

The station was old and looked as though it was trapped in the 1930s. A huge oak wooden table was elevated at least two-feet high on a platform which gave the desk sergeant the appearance of severe importance and authority. The desk sergeant that day was officer W. Conley. A sergeant’s status was bestowed on officers with the following criteria: old, white, crabby, and racist.  Conley displayed all those attributes, along with an ill-fitted hearing aid that never appeared to work.

As the officers weaved in and out around me, I stood there feeling very small. Everyone dispersed and headed out to their assignments, I was left standing alone in the middle of the room.

Suddenly, I did what I was taught to do, I summoned up the courage from a space that my mother taught me, from my inner-soul. I blurted out, “I didn’t get an assignment.”

Immediately, the room became completely quiet. Conley slowly lifted his pale, gaunt face and latched his blue cloudy eyes onto me. He then pointed his long boney finger towards the corner of the room where a dirty sink and broom closet stood.

Through clenched teeth, and quivering jaws he said, “See that closet? Look in there and get a broom.”

For a moment, I felt as though I was back working at Mr. Budd Bracket’s restaurant. I have always been blessed with a quick mind, and that day was no different. My mind flashed over the many menial jobs I had held: cook, waitress, barmaid, housekeeping, all paying less than $1.50 per hour.

And then it hit me like a hammer if they are going to pay me $12,000 a year to sweep this damn dirty floor, who’s the fool here?

As I started to move towards the broom closet, I heard a voice behind me: “Don’t do that kid, come with me.”

It was the voice of an old-time beat cop, H. Fisher. The Lord sent Fisher to save my dignity that day. From that point on, Fisher would take me under his wing and teach me how to walk a beat. Fisher would retire a few years later, and die within a month of retirement. To this day, I can still see Fisher’s smiling eyes. I can still hear his soft voice and those words.

I entered my career under the shadow of race discrimination litigation and a consent decree.

In 1975, Judge Gerald Weber, a federal judge, issued a mandate that ordered the City of Pittsburgh to hire one Black woman, one white woman, one Black man for every white man hired as an officer, which was known as The Judge Weber Consent Decree.

In 1979, I was among the many Black recruits hired under this decree.

In 1991, however, our union used my dues, and the dues of my fellow Black officers to file a reverse-discrimination lawsuit and won.

That ultimately ended the consent decree, which allowed for a “re-whitening” of the Pittsburgh Police Department.

Eventually, I understood it was important that Tonya Ford, a fellow officer, myself, and the ACLU proceed with a legal discrimination action lawsuit filed against the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police.

Allow me to share the reason it was necessary to end my career under the same legal shadow I started, pursuing race discrimination litigation against PPD.

1979-1980 POLICING

Under the Judge Weber Consent Decree, applicants were required to pass the same written test, background investigations, and physical as our counterparts.  Black people earned the right to be selected, we challenged each other to perform better. This was all done under the watchful eyes of Ms. Alma Speed-Fox (The Mother of Pittsburgh’s Civil Rights), Harvey Adams, and the NAACP. The City Of Pittsburgh owes an enormous debt of gratitude to them for their relentless and dedicated work in diversifying the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police in those years.

Policing and community relations worked in Pittsburgh during the 1980s. Due and in part to the diversity of the department, and the residential clause, (officers were required to live in the city).

There was a symbiotic relationship with the residents and departments. Most importantly, the police department had the budget and bodies to make it work. Black Pittsburgh communities had their own heroes in blue.

Petey Drummonds drove the big, white community policing van that passed out the treasured baseball cards. Kids in public housing and minority communities throughout the city waited anxiously for the huge white truck with the blue PPD decal on the side to appear.

The East End Zone #5 station had Black officers who created sports teams in their spare time. They became surrogate dads to single-parent households. Detective Rob White was a boxing legend who mentored young boys who had dreams of becoming a Mohammad Ali. The Hill District Zone #2 was the model for the hit TV show Hill Street Blues, and the great William “Muggsy” Moore would become the first African American Chief of Police in the history of the Pittsburgh PD.

You might ask, if all of this was so successful, then, why did it not continue to this day?

It was successful as a direct result of the Judge Weber Consent Decree and it collapsed when the police union successfully filed the reverse discrimination lawsuit:

“AND NOW, to-wit, this 20th day of March 1991, for the reasons described in the foregoing Opinion, it is ORDERED, ADJUDGED and DECREED that this Court’s preliminary injunction, entered December 5, 1975, be and hereby is VACATED and DISSOLVED.”

In the spring of 2012, I made the decision to return to the streets where I always felt most comfortable, as a beat officer. I requested and was transferred to, Zone #2 Hill District. This is where I had started my career as a City of Pittsburgh Bureau of Police officer 30 years prior.

The Hill District has been my home for my entire life. I was coming back to it. I was entering the last two years of my career.

Tonya Ford, Vic Walczak, and I met at the Hill House in the Hill District on a mild-spring afternoon, for the purpose of discussing strategies to sue the City of Pittsburgh Bureau of Police for discrimination.

I made it clear to Walczak that Ford and I would put our careers on the line to provide any information he needed under one condition: that he would bring the case to court in two years upon my retirement. He promised he would.

Throughout those next two years, Ford and I would attend countless meetings with ACLU attorneys.

In the Spring of 2015, almost a year after I retired, the ACLU of Pennsylvania announced that it would settle a class-action federal lawsuit alleging that the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police had a longstanding pattern and practice of racial discrimination against African-Americans in its hiring process for entry-level police officer positions.

As part of the agreement, a committee would be established to revise the city’s hiring process. The settlement also provided payments totaling $985,000 to African-American applicants who were rejected between 2008 and 2014.

In my opinion, this decision fell short of our original mission: to force the city of  Pittsburgh to be purposeful in hiring minorities. Tonya and I were absolutely crushed, however, we weren’t surprised.

According to Pittsburgh Police 2019 statistical report, only five out of the 89 new Pittsburgh police recruits were Black.

Our city is about 25 percent Black and yet our 879-person police department is only 12.35 percent.

In fact, these percentages have dropped recent years, which means our police force is becoming less diverse.

When Antwon Rose was shot, my thoughts were, “if given the same scenario of young African American males bailing from a vehicle and running–which happened to me on many occasions–I think my response would have played out differently.” Antwon would have resembled my son, my neighbor’s son, or my brother therefore, I would not be so quick to pull the trigger. This happens when your police department reflects the community they serve.

This is what made policing work in the 80s and 90s prior to the elimination of the consent decree.

We knew that it would take serious “POLITICAL WILL” from our elected officials to address the antiquated policies and to stop the “re-whitening” of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police.

Today, this political will is still needed.


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