By Elaine Frantz
Special to the Pittsburgh Current
In the wake of a series of highly-publicized incidents of police officers killing Black people, most recently George Floyd, many residents of Allegheny County have wondered how to prevent horrific, tragic outcomes. Some are realizing that we know very little about how our police work.
Not until Michael Rosfeld, a police officer working for the tiny Borough of East Pittsburgh, killed Antwon Rose, a Black student at Woodland High School, who was unarmed, on June 19, 2018, did many of us consider the fact that Allegheny County is policed by around 130 different departments, of a varying degree of quality. We drive through multiple jurisdictions, often without even realizing it. Recent calls for a county-wide Citizen’s Review Board for accountability have met resistance.
Mount Lebanon’s police department is one of the larger and better funded of these municipal departments and it serves a left-leaning community. It is worth considering how carefully and effectively the municipality is ensuring the safety and equity of its policing in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. Could it become an example of how small municipal departments might modernize themselves? Unfortunately, so far the news is not good.
Police Chief Aaron Lauth on June 26 issued a defense of the Mt. Lebanon Police in the form of a Q & A. The document expresses disapproval of racial inequity and racist violence and announces the creation of a citizen committee to advise the police on racial matters; it also shows a defensiveness and lack of transparency that will continue to be obstacles to progress.
The part of the document we are all here for is “What are the statistics for police contacts and arrests as they relate to race.” The Q & A states that Mt. Lebanon police keep data on contacts (excluding traffic stops) which prove the absence of racial profiling: 13 percent of contacts are Black (about equivalent to the racial composition of Allegheny County.)
Did Chief Lauth suggest that the municipality reflects the racial composition of Allegheny County? Lebo’s population is only 1.1 percent Black. Of 33,109 residents, just around 364 Black people call Mt. Lebanon home. While Black people may come here to work or visit or pass through, surely it is not the case that on average at any given time an additional 4,000-ish non-resident Black people just happen to be in the municipality (and also assuming no additional non-resident white people or people of other races are doing the same.)
We can only imagine what the stats would look like if the police contact numbers included traffic stops. One fears that they would be even worse.
No reasonable person thinks that one out of every eight people in Mt. Lebanon is Black, but that is the claim on which the Q & A rests the assertion that the municipality does not engage in racial profiling. In fact, the contact numbers the department provides are a big problem, and apper to establish textbook racial profiling.
The unstated racist assumption behind some people’s acceptance of these numbers is that Black people are ducking into Lebo to commit crimes, so the police are only doing their job by disproportionately approaching Black people. We could dispel that claim with more in-depth data, but the police do not make public any further breakdown of racial statistics.
Another relevant section is entitled ‘What is your Use of Force Policy? Can I have a copy?”
The short answer to this question is “no.” Many police forces, like Pittsburgh, publish their use of force policy. Mt. Lebanon, however, will only summarize its policy for the public. Any lawyer knows that wording is where the action is. Is there anything problematic in that policy? We aren’t allowed to know.
“Do you use military-style equipment?” explains that the municipality has an armored truck, but shares it with other nearby departments who collaborate with them on a SWAT-style team; together, they use it about once a month in cases of “active shooters, barricaded gunman, high-risk warrant services and other dangerous situations usually involving persons with firearms.”
No one wants police officers forced into dangerous situations when the military has given us an armored truck to protect them. But studies of police militarization highlight the danger and ineffectiveness of increasing use of SWAT-style teams to more aggressively do tasks like serving warrants. There is a lack of evidence that these tactics keep police officers safer.
Community members should know more about what those incidents actually look like. What sort of data indicates that this is the safest and most effective approach? How often is the use of a military vehicle really required or necessary in Mt. Lebanon? What are the racial statistics of people who have watched that armored truck roll up for them?
The short answer to “What type of person is chosen to become a Mount Lebanon Police Officer” is “White.” There are no non-white officers. Despite the department’s stated commitment to diverse hiring and the very real high pay that officers earn to police an area with a low crime rate, we are asked to believe that Black officers simply won’t take the job.
Maybe we don’t need to know about these things. Maybe someone outside of the police is monitoring them on our behalf? Much of the section titled “Who is in charge of overseeing the officers” describes internal police hierarchy. It further states that the chief reports to the Municipal Manager, who reports to elected Commissioners. Has the Manager been meaningfully exercising his powers of supervision? How much authority and access does he have? What are his priorities?
From recent conversations I’ve had with them, I know that until this month, the Commissioners had not spent much time at all on police oversight. Basically, they trusted the Police Chief to captain the ship. Since they had not noticed big problems, they had not asked big questions.
There is every reason to assume that Mt. Lebanon Police are better than most of the small municipal police forces: their salaries are high, they are carefully hired, highly educated, well-trained and well-resourced, and the Police Chief who supervises them is highly respected for his skill and professionalism. Policing is an inherently stressful, often depressing and unpleasant job, but policing Mt. Lebanon is likely less so than policing areas with more crime and poverty.
I had the chance to attend the Citizens’ Police Academy last year and found the officers to be very friendly. A lot of people have been really relieved when law enforcement pulled up. One day that might be me.
But as community members we have a responsibility to make sure that our institutions are running fairly, safely, and responsibly. Our police have some real issues to grapple with relating to racial justice, militarization, and lack of transparency. They aren’t going to solve those problems themselves, particularly since they are still trying to explain them away.
Several groups have sprung up recently to push for increased oversight and accountability, and Commissioners and other officials are beginning to take a real interest in making sure that we are keeping our community safe for all.
The only real solution, however, is for Mt. Lebanon’s citizens to take the time to seriously think about what we want from our police and to demand access to the information we need to be sure that we are getting that — not because we disrespect or dislike the people who police us, but because in a democracy, that is how things are supposed to function.
We need to push back on defensive justifications, even when it is unpleasant to do so. When we are told not to worry about evidence of racial profiling, because four thousand black people are always hanging around Mt. Lebanon unseen, we need to be brave and honest enough to demand answers.