By Brittany Hailer
Pittsburgh Current Managing Editor
In a newly released report, the Abolitionist Law Center Court Watch asks, “Is there anywhere in Allegheny County where African-Americans can escape the overwhelmingly greater risk of getting arrested?”
Their answer: “No.”
According to an Abolitionist Law Center Court Watch program report released today, Black people are more likely to be arrested by Pittsburgh area police and more likely to face cash bail imposed by local judges. The Current’s reporting is based on an advance copy of the report and additional interviews. Read a full copy of the report here.
Over the course of 140 days, 70 percent of all Pittsburgh arrests were of Black community members, despite Black people only making up 23% of the city’s population. Outside of the city at police departments around Allegheny County, 47% of all arrests were of Black community members, despite Black people only making up just 9% of the county population.
According to the report, “Black defendants are 26.5% more likely to be subjected to secured monetary bail than non-Black community members, meaning they must pay their bail amount in full – typically thru a professional bail bondsman – or else be forced into confinement at Allegheny County Jail.”
ALC Court Watch found that a total of $23,450,587 in bail was imposed on 1,643 defendants, an average of $14,273 per defendant, from August 14 to December 31, 2020 by magisterial district judges.
The ALC’s findings are based on municipal court docket information and arrest and arraignment data from 5,950 individual docket sheets compiled over the course of 140 days.
Autumn Redcross, director of ALC Court Watch, notes in the press release, “This report only quantifies on paper the lived experiences of actual folks represented in the stats. The truth is, for myself, my family and those who look like me, we move throughout our lives and in this city differently because of the apartheid conditions that determine and limit our liberty.
Jordan Dyett, a volunteer with ALC’s Court Watch, observed multiple courtrooms, documenting proceedings and conclusions. She also analyzed data on officer arrest rates, who they arrested, where the arrest occurred, and why.
“The over-policing of certain neighborhoods and communities is undeniable, especially when looking at which officers are doing the most arresting,” Dyett said, “Black men are the target of surveillance and police brutality that then funnels them into the criminal punishment system.” said Dyett.
The report details arrest percentages per police department and highlights police officers with the highest arrest records. According to the report, police officers who made the greatest number of documented arrests, also arrested majority Black people.
The report’s highest arresting officer, Eric Cersosimo of McKees Rocks, made 52 arrests in 140 days–accounting for more than a quarter of all arrests in Mckees Rocks. Thirty of Cersosimo’s 52 arrests were of Black people.
Larry Butler of North Braddock, a sergeant who made 30 arrests, 56% of which were Black people, “is the subject of a 2019 federal lawsuit for the excessive force, unlawful arrest, and false imprisonment of Keaira Booker, a Black woman of North Braddock who filmed Butler at a traffic stop,” according to the report.
In West Mifflin, 40 percent of arrests were of Black people, despite a 9% Black population. Sergeant Christopher Mordaunt and Officer Tommy Trieu, who posted racist or disparaging comments revealed by the Associated Press, arrested the majority of Black people. A video of Trieu and Mordaunt pulling a 15- year-old Black girl’s hair on a school bus in December 2020 went viral. Civil rights groups and community members have called for Trieu and Mordaunt to be fired.
Redcross, said the statistics of the report did not surprise her, however, digging deeper into particular police officers and what they discovered–lawsuits, videos of police brutality, racist facebook posts–“were the most surprising pieces of the report.”
“And I’m really glad that they were added because it gives you the information that is deeper than it seems on the base level. It goes deeper, it has lineage, has roots. It didn’t just show up in the dockets verbatim. But it goes back to experiences and lines of misuse and use of power that shouldn’t have been there in the first place,” said Redcross.
Dyett said that police departments often fail to track more expansive demographic information about arrests.
“For example, ‘Black’, ‘White,’ and ‘Other’ are the only options for race and ethnicity, and ‘female’ and “male’ are the only options for sex and gender. This effectively excludes entire populations and communities, making it harder to tell if bias and other disparities exist in the county’s policing,” Dyett said.
In Brentwood Borough, African Americans are 3% of the population but account for 53% of all arrests, the largest point difference in the report’s datasets. Brentwood is the location of the death of Jonny Gammage, who was murdered by Brentwood Police on October 12, 1995.
The census bureau reported a 0% Black population in Frazer Township, the whitest township in Allegheny County, and yet, 38% of the police department’s arrests were of Black people.
On the Frazer Township Police Department Facebook page, Police Chief Terry Kuhns has notified residents of false accusations and misguided calls to the police, both instances occurring at Pittsburgh Mills Mall. In September 2020, a Kuhns posted that an abduction allegation was “completely fabricated and never occurred.”
In February 2020, Kuhns posted about a man who was standing at a PNC ATM in the Pittsburgh Mills Mall. The chief posted that the man was “mulling around the ATM which legitimately caused concern. This incident initiated inquiries from media, outlets, due to the Facebook postings, to the Frazer Police.”
PNC refused to provide surveillance recordings to the Frazer Police Department without receiving a subpoena. Kuhn wrote, “Anyone who has any understanding of the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure knows that we can not obtain a subpoena until-(a) It has been established that the intent to commit a crime has been established, and-(b) After a suspect has been arrested. Despite the aforementioned setback in our investigation, we were able to identify the individual with the assistance of Chief Eric Doutt, of the Arnold Police Department.”
Police identified the individual and determined that he was a store manager at the mall and making a night deposit at PNC Bank after his shift.
The post continues, ”After he made the night deposit he immediately returned home. This was corroborated by the Frazer Police surveillance cameras and additional agencies cameras. Although this incident was a complete misunderstanding, we still encourage everyone to report any suspicious activity.”
Redcross said townships like Frazer and Brentwood have a lot of work to do. She hopes that the ALC report will open Pittsburghers’ eyes to how their actions–calling the police for something as benign as depositing money in an ATM–can affect their neighbors.
“It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to understand that this is just a consequence of being in that space. And the fact that Frazer has no Black people living there is questionable and uncomfortable. And what we don’t want it to be is tragic. We’re hoping that more and more people will come to understand the consequences of their actions. Those actions being, describing or inventing crimes for others,” said Redcross.
Cash Bail and the Allegheny County Jail
The report shows how bail-setting practices of local magistrates vary, “revealing there is no real standard for how cash bail is imposed in Allegheny County.”
ALC Court Watch reports that whether a defendant will have to pay for pre-trial freedom, is based on who their magistrate is. Furthermore, the report states that “for every judge and for every alleged offense scenario, Black community members are still more likely to face secured monetary bail than white community members.”
District Court Judges Regis Welsh and Robert Ford were among the top judges to impose secured monetary bail most frequently in the report’s findings.
During the December 2020 Jail Oversight Board meeting President Judge for the 5th Judicial District of Pennsylvania (Allegheny County), and chair of the jail oversight board, Kim Berkeley Clark, said she had sent a letter to all county magistrates in response to concerns about the spread of COVID-19 among incarcerated people. Clark said she asked Allegheny County magistrates to only deny bail or set cash bail for explicit reasons of public safety.
Redcross said, however, ALC Court Watch did not observe a change in magistrate bail habits before or after Clark’s request.
Clark did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but has been advocating for lowering arrest rates and the population at the ACJ, recently applauding the county’s second John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Award.
In 2018, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded Allegheny County a $2 million grant through the national Safety and Justice Challenge, a program that incentives decarceration. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the county reported that the ACJ population had fallen 36% since the MacArthur funding in 2018.
And yet, racial disparities of those incarcerated, of those arrested, and those forced to pay cash bail have gotten worse. The Current reported in May 2020 that proportionally more Black individuals were admitted into the jail than the year prior. While the white population decreased as the jail decarcerated, the percentage of Black incarcerated persons grew by four percentage points.
The Post-Gazette reported that the county’s “strategies for the next couple of years include preventing unnecessary arrests and incarceration from substance use, mental illness and homelessness; implementing efficiencies to reduce the length of jail stays.” The county also said it would begin research into “drivers of racial and ethnic disparities throughout the criminal justice system.”
The county did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Redcross said it is incontestable that the county has reduced the population at the jail. However, what does that mean for Black Pittsburgh?
“We can see that when they began to decarcerate the jail, that it did not have a positive effect on racial disparity, and that they actually increased for black and brown people. It’s just boggling,” said Redcross.
Dyett said she did not observe a single magistrate release a defendant from jail during her court watch sessions. Dyett said her experience as a watcher in the court is anecdotal, but she noticed that when appearing for similar, if not the same charges, community members who are Black appeared in court more frequently from Allegheny County Jail than their white counterparts.
“Many white defendants are not in custody when they appear in court,” Dyett said, “In other words, pre-trial freedom is widely visible and apparent for many white community members – but not for those who are Black and POC – even in the face of identical charges.”