Wesley Giles, a sophomore finance major at Pitt, claimed he and a friend were walking up to the friend’s car in September 2017 when two police officers allegedly approached them with guns and told them to get on the ground.
“Upon reaching us, they cuffed us, emptied our pockets, searched us and then as soon as we got up, we realized we were surrounded by approximately five to seven more police SUVs,” Giles claimed.
Giles alleged after he and his friend waited 20 minutes for their identities to be confirmed, an officer finally told them why they’d been stopped.
“Apparently there had been an armed robbery in the area, and me and my associate, who is a much darker African-American male, had fit the description. Basically, [the officer] told us he was sorry for the inconvenience and that was the last we heard of it,” Giles claimed.
Giles said this moment was what lead to the creation of Wednesday night’s event.
About 25 people attended “Flashing Lights,” an interactive discussion between students and Pitt police that focused on policing efforts, such as outreach programs, within Pitt’s community. Alpha Phi Alpha hosted the event in the William Pitt Union. Amir Dorsey, a sophomore studying chemistry and an organizer of the event, said the turnout at the event was positive.
“I think a lot of people learned new perspectives on issues they had in their hearts,” Dorsey said. “I think Officer Guy Johnson did a really good job responding to people’s questions in the respectful manner.”
Johnson, a Pitt police officer for 34 years, has been in charge of community relations for the force since 2014. He responded to questions about concerns with policing from the audience at the event.
“[Police brutality] changes my job … people look at us differently,” Johnson said. “People see you in a uniform and don’t see someone that cares about you … I’m here because I care about your concerns.”
The discussion covered a wide range of topics, from police training methods to University of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Police Department jurisdictions and procedures. The attendees also talked about Black Lives Matter, body cameras and the current controversy surrounding police presence in communities across the country.
“It’s almost made out like all police are racist. Getting rid of police won’t get rid of racism, that’s why we have to go to these trainings,” Johnson said. “The higher-ups won’t tolerate it, we’re trying to break down those walls. You tell me what I can do as a police officer to make you feel safer.”
When Johnson asked what could be done to change the audience’s perception of police, a member responded, “more transparency would help me trust police officers.” Recently, body cameras have grown in popularity, and some Pittsburgh police officers have been issued them. In many cases, though, footage is not available to the public.
“With body cameras, a lot of times things are said that aren’t accurate and the camera clarifies that,” Johnson said. “The camera sometimes says, ‘Yes, that’s what happened,’ or ‘No, that’s not what happened.’”
The conversation then transitioned to what police training pertained to treatment of women and LGBTQ+ members. Johnson addressed new training requirements that help with that, such as University-mandated sensitivity classes for Pitt police.
“We’re trained to treat everybody equally, even though that doesn’t always happen,” Johnson said. “If you don’t put the time in [to University-assigned training] you don’t pass.”
After the event, students appreciated the chance to speak with Johnson and get an understanding of how it is for an officer, while also being able to express their concerns.
“I think this is really good for the community in terms of getting an officer out here, and at the very least, being able to pick his brain towards what’s going on in the community right now,” Giles said.
It all came down to one thing — trust. Johnson said that wasn’t something that could be achieved single-handedly.
“You’ve got to give us room to grow,” Johnson said. “We have to grow together.”