Pitt police town hall addresses transparency, communication with students

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Zoom Screenshot

A Pitt police town hall was held Thursday via Zoom.

By Thea Barrett, Staff Writer

Mikala Aleksandruk, a senior health services major, said being fearless to fight racism and discrimination is one of the most important and needed things in this moment.

“This conversation, and what we’re doing with … students, administration and every single person on this call, is being fearless to fight this issue, that is racism, that is discrimination, that is disparity,” Aleksandruk said. “We’re all being pretty fearless right now, just in this space.”

Aleksandruk and state Rep. Jake Wheatley Jr., D-19, moderated a Thursday evening town hall where student panelists and attendees discussed concerns about the police, including racial profiling and transparency.

Pitt police Chief James Loftus and Commander Eric Holmes, the chief of staff of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, participated in the event along with University administration and Pitt security subcontractor Allied Security. The Student Government Board, Student Affairs and the Black Senate organized the town hall.

Transparency was brought up many times at the town hall — what it meant, how it can be achieved and how the public can be more informed about police activity. Aleksandruk asked if it was possible for the Pitt police to have a public database of all officer disciplinary actions so that the information was widely available. David Harris, a professor in the School of Law, then expanded on her idea, clarifying how it could be done within the limits of current law.

“I wonder if a system could be set up that would allow students to see we had this many cases of this type, this is what we did, this is how we did it, even if you can’t disclose the officer’s identity,” Harris, an expert in policing, said.

Loftus responded and said: “sharing that information publicly, when we’re required to hold onto that, yes, absolutely, we can do that.”

Harris added that police shouldn’t be responsible for responding to all crisis situations. He said duties should be split among the police department and other organizations to better respond to certain situations, such as mental health crises. Others also argue for this concept of  “unbundling” the police system, which would mean police officers aren’t responsible for multiple jobs such as traffic patroller or mental health counselor, among others. 

“This is truly a moment of great opportunity to look beyond where we are and to see what we could be … a willingness for the first time to look at the full group of services, everything that police do, and to ask, ‘Is this is a job for a person with handcuffs and a gun, or would we rather have a mental health person responding to this situation?’” Harris said.

Holmes said he agrees that police officers aren’t always the best people to respond to every incident. He said the City police have partnered with resolve Crisis Services at UPMC, which will travel with police officers to help de-escalate situations and ultimately “be the difference between someone receiving mental health care and serving jail time.”

”I agree with everything Dr. Harris said. The work that happens on the streets sometimes with police are not the most appropriate individuals for it,” Holmes said. “We’ve partnered with resolve for a number of years to try and help with that.We have a diversion program that we’re trying out over in Zone 1.”

Loftus added that the partnership with resolve allows the police to refer people in need to mental health services. He said the partnership allows domestic abuse victims — specifically teeenagers in abusive households — or homeless people to get help.

Loftus also said he is up for starting listening and discussion groups with students and members of the police force to continue similar discussions in the future, as well as to addressing concerns about previous actions and mistakes.

Matthew Wilson, a junior communication major, said he hopes more events can be organized in the future to encourage communication and discussion between the community, students and Pitt police. He said knowing Pitt police officers personally would make him feel more comfortable on campus.

“I wouldn’t be as alarmed, as a student, if I were walking down to campus and I saw … Officer [Guy] Johnson, driving around, him and his partner on patrol,” Wilson said. “I’d give them a wave, say ‘hey, hello,’ … and that would help create that positive growth for future generations, because as the next classes then come into Pitt … they know they’re going to a school in which they don’t have to be on edge … and that things have been put in place prior to them.”

Some students were more skeptical, though. Jorden King, a graduate student in the School of Education, said he’s experienced racial profiling and other encounters with the Pitt police that have made him feel uneasy, but that he is encouraged by current discussions.

“ I definitely haven’t had any kind of alarming situations with the Pitt police, I have experienced some type of profiling situations and different things of that nature. Those situations have made me feel a bit uneasy at times,” King said. “Coming into this space, it’s comforting to be able to sit and speak with Pitt police officers.”

King also said many Black students, including himself, feel that racial profiling is an issue on campus. He added that some students don’t feel like they are protected by police.

“A lot of students don’t feel like that’s happening for Black students, especially myself. I definitely feel like when we see police officers, our first thing is not like, ‘Oh, we are going to be OK now,’” King said. “It’s most likely, ‘What’s going to happen next?’”

But Holly Lamb, the deputy chief of the Pitt police, said she doesn’t think that racial profiling is happening on campus.

“We haven’t heard that it’s happening,” Lamb said. “It’s all about communication with us. And I agree sometimes that we’re more reactionary and that we don’t get out there and talk to the students and the community until something happens. But that’s something we’re working on.”

Wheatley countered and said just looking at the numbers may not tell the whole story of what is happening.

“Even if the data doesn’t bear it out, the fact that you have so many of your students who are voicing this feeling of being racially profiled or identified as different than other students — and maybe it’s not just a law enforcement issue — but certainly this is something that needs to be addressed in a real way,” Wheatley said.

Loftus said the campus police were trying to do more work connecting with the local community, but that the COVID-19 pandemic shut down some of these programs. He said it’s something campus police will work on going forward.

“Our community programs unit used to be one officer, and now it’s seven,” Loftus said. “The idea is, let’s get out, let’s show our faces, let’s do those things. That was a planned progression, so that when you don’t have officers answering calls, we want them out making those personal contacts.”

At the City level, Eric Holmes, the City police chief of staff, said the police have struggled to connect with younger residents. He said while City police don’t want to interfere with University police’s jurisdiction, they do want to help them better connect with students.

Holmes used an example of taking local kids to a Steelers game as a pre-pandemic way the City was trying to better connect with residents.

“We’ve been blessed to be able to partner with Maurkice Pouncey with the Steelers,” Holmes said. “He provides tickets for every home game, and we take inner-city youth to Steeler games.”

Loftus added that he discussed the desire to start a “listening group” with SGB and student leaders like Aleksandruk. He said the support was there from all parties, but someone needed to just actually set the plan in motion.

“We’ve had some discussions, some meetings with the Student Government Board … and we’re at the point now where we’re … all in agreement that we want to do this, the specific form is really not important,” Loftus said. “What’s important is … we meet regularly — it’s not something where we say ‘OK, we don’t need to get together next month.’, We’re gonna do this and sustain this. We’re interested in hearing what the students said.”

But these meetings with Pitt police follow frustrations from some SGB members after conversations were delayed for two weeks. SGB announced at last week’s meeting that members finally met with Loftus and his superior, Ted Fritz, vice chancellor for public safety. Board members said police leadership committed to meeting every two weeks to discuss the creation of a student advisory committee for the force.

King said he was encouraged that students and police were willing to listen to each other. But he said he isn’t sure the town hall would be happening if it wasn’t for the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer.

“On the surface, [this panel] makes me feel a little bit better,” King said. “But part of me thinks about if some of the racial unjustice and unrest would have never happened this year, would we be having these conversations? Often, in just University campus climate, when things are hostile then everything is being considered. But then when everything starts to die down, all of those actions get pushed to the back.”

A previous version of this story contained several transcription errors, omitted an exchange between Lamb and Wheatley about racial profiling and misattributed a quote from Holmes to Loftus. This article has been updated to reflect these changes. The Pitt News regrets these errors.

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