Pitt police town hall addresses transparency, communication with students

A+Pitt+police+town+hall+was+held+Thursday+via+Zoom.+

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, 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, here 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 to show students we had this many cases of this type, this is what we did, this is how we did it, even if we can’t disclose the officer’s identity,” Harris, an expert in policing, said.

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 at where we are and see if we can adapt to the full group of services and ask if this is a job for a person with handcuffs and a gun or if we’d rather have a mental health professional address this,” Harris said.

Loftus said he agrees that police officers aren’t always the best people to respond to every incident. He said the Pitt 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. Sometimes the work that happens on the streets, sometimes the police are not the most appropriate individuals for that,” Loftus said. “We’ve partnered with resolve for a number of years to try and work with that and we have a diversion program we’re trying 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 with his partner on patrol,” Wilson said. “I’d say hey, hello, and that positive engagement would help grow that connection for future classes because they don’t have to come in feeling on edge, when these stepping stones have already been put in place for 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.

“While I haven’t experienced extremely alarming situations with the Pitt police, I have experienced profiling and things of that nature that make me feel uneasy,” King said. “It makes me feel comforted to come into this space 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 it’s happening for Black students, especially myself. I definitely feel like when we see police officers, we don’t feel like, ‘Oh, we’re going to be OK now,’” King said. “Our first thought is, ‘What’s going to happen next?’”

King added that while the experiences of racial profiling aren’t always reflected in police statistics, they are represented through firsthand accounts by people of color.

“You can look at the spreadsheets or the data, but what really teaches you the most is talking to Black people,” King said. “I’ve definitely had bad experiences with the Pitt police, and while conversations like this is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t really trickle down to the people I’m seeing every day.”

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 used to be one officer, now they’re seven,” Loftus said. “The idea is let’s get out there, let’s show our faces, let’s do those things. That was a planned progression, when officers aren’t out answering calls we want them out there making those connections.”

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 have been blessed to partner with Maurkice Pouncey with the Steelers,” Holmes said. “He provides tickets to every home game, and we take inner-city youth to every home game.”

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 meetings with the Student Government Board and we’re at the point now where we’re all at the agreement that we want to do this, the specific form is not important,” Loftus said. “What’s important is that we meet regularly, we do this and sustain this. We’re interested in hearing what the students have to say.”

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 bit better,” King said. “But part of me thinks that if the racial unrest that happened this year hadn’t happened this year, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I worry if this starts to die down, this is going to be pushed back again.”

King said he hoped these conversations would produce better relationships between students and the police in the future.

“I hope that, going forward, the University and the police can be proactive and listen to us instead of just responding when things are bad,” King said. “It’s really important for the trust to be established now, so we can all work together moving forward for years to come.”

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