The Pitt News

Post-Ferguson, expert discusses race in Pittsburgh

By Lauren Wilson / Staff Writer

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With a projector, Professor David Harris displayed images on a projection screen from the 1960s Civil Rights protests. Then, he displayed images from the Ferguson, Mo. protests last year. 

To Harris, the images were nearly identical. 

“This was American policing [back then],” Harris said. “So I have to ask, who was the genius who brought the [police] dogs to Ferguson?”

Harris, a Distinguished Faculty Scholar, Professor of Law and expert on racial profiling and police at Pitt, presented “The Collision of Race and Criminal Justice: Lessons from the Aftermath of Ferguson,” on Wednesday afternoon in the Cathedral of Learning. The lecture was part of a speaker series by the University’s Center of Race and Social Problems. The previous lecture in the series, last month, featured Orlando Patterson, the John Cowles Professor of Sociology at Harvard University. About 160 people attended Harris’ lecture, according to Larry Davis, dean of the School of Social Work and director of the Center on Race and Social Problems. Reed Smith LLC, a Pittsburgh law firm, sponsors the series. 

Sala Udin, former city councilman and civil rights activist, introduced Harris, calling him the “leading national authority on racial profiling.” In 1998, Harris’ research on racial profiling encouraged the passing of “The Traffic Stops Statistics Study Act” which outlawed law enforcement officers from using race as the primary factor in making a traffic stop.

“We’ve come a long way, but not far enough,” Harris said. “With race and criminal justice, you are never writing on a blank slate.”

University professors, community members and students listened to Harris discuss Ferguson and how the Pittsburgh police could improve community relations.

Harris said in his speech that, following Ferguson, it is important for Americans to hold urban police accountable, by, for example, advocating for body cameras on officers.

“What is it about urban police forces that continue a culture of violence and racism?” he asked.

In Pittsburgh, Harris said, the new bureau police chief, Cameron McLay, is doing a good job of working with the community, especially amidst the police brutality protests in December. 

No incidents occurred during the December protests and police did not interfere except to block traffic, according to prior Pitt News reports.

Additionally, McLay was photographed on New Year’s Eve, holding a sign that read, “I resolve to challenge racism @ work #EndWhiteSilence.”

Sonya Toler, spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh police, said, “The Chief believes that the bureau needs to be involved in the community to build solid relationships, which is the foundation for improving police/community relations.”

Some of these community relations initiatives, she said, include building upon the Police Athletic League to have officers coaching youth sports. Each police zone has also increased their community resource officers to two per zone. These officers attend community events and maintain contact with residents, according to Toler.

To illustrate Ferguson’s violence, Harris described the reactions to Ferguson he heard from local veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. The veterans, he said, expressed shock to the media regarding the militarization at the police and said that, even in Iraq, the military does not point weapons at civilians with their hands up.

Tweets collected on Storify, a social media collaborative tool, called “Veterans on Ferguson” echoed Harris’s story.

“I led foot patrols in downtown Baquba, #Iraq in 2005-06 w/less firepower than #Ferguson PD,” one of the tweets in the Storify read. 

To decrease police brutality, Harris is in support of police wearing cameras, but said they will not “cure all that ails us.”

To evaluate the effectiveness of body cameras, Harris referenced a 2012 study done by the University of Cambridge-Institute of Criminology and the Rialto (California) Police Department, which is roughly the same size of the Ferguson police force. The force installed cameras in the officers’ sunglasses and assigned them the same hours and duties. The department found that complaints against officers went down by 88 percent. Use of force dropped by 60 percent.

“If we get half of these results, if we get a quarter of these results, we’ll be jumping for joy,” Harris said. 

Harris said it is important to prevent riots like those Ferguson from happening by improving relationships between police and the people they serve. 

“This needs to be done now,” he said.

Editors Note: A previous version of this story stated that Orlando Patterson’s lecture occurred last Wednesday. This is inaccurate. Patterson’s lecture occurred last month. A previous version of this story also stated that Sala Udin is a current city council member. This is inaccurate. Udin is a former city council member. The story has been updated to reflect these changes.

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Post-Ferguson, expert discusses race in Pittsburgh