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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

About police hiring ...

Posted by on Wed, Aug 22, 2012 at 12:44 PM

A quick thought prompted by all the news surrounding hiring and promotions at the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, especially a pending lawsuit to be filed by the ACLU:

There's been a lot of talk about diversity this week: Just today, the Ravenstahl administration appointed a new Zone commander, among whose qualifications, we're told, is the fact that he "strengthens the diversity of the police bureau's upper echelons." And sure, it's hard to escape the impression that the administration was bracing for a coming storm. But concerns about a lack of diversity within the ranks are not new. As this 12-year-old Post-Gazette story suggests, they date back to the days of Mayor Tom Murphy -- and actually, well beyond that.

In fact, it's probably safe to say that, within my lifetime, there has been only one period in which a lack of diversity within the ranks wasn't a problem: the period of 1975-1991, when a federal consent decree governed hiring of new recruits. Back in those days, for every white male recruit the city hired, it also had to hire a white woman, a black woman, and a black male. One legacy of that decree is that for many years, woman have played a surprisingly large role among the bureau's highest echelons. But a federal judge dissolved that decree 20 years ago, after four would-be white cops alleged that it constituted reverse discrimination.

It's also worth noting that city police were also governed by a second consent decree, from 1997 to 2002, as a result of a lawsuit brought by ... the ACLU. That case had to do with alleged lapses of discipline and oversight, rather than hiring. But in some ways, things seem to really be coming full circle this week.

Years ago, the ACLU's Vic Walczak was an attorney in a court dispute between police Commander Catherine McNeilly and the then-fledgling Ravenstahl administration. On the way out of the courtroom, I asked Walczak if he thought a consent decree might again be necessary.

Walczak told me something that wasn't general knowledge at the time: The city was gearing up to change its civil-service rules to promote a detective who'd previously been accused of excessive force and domestic abuse. The name of that detective? George Trosky -- who was just promoted to assistant chief this week. With those kinds of decisions being made, Walczak said, "You're asking me if there needs to be another consent decree?"

Judging from its announcement today, the new ACLU case is focused on entry-level hiring, rather than promotions and appointments made among the top brass. But this is shaping up to be yet another battle in a fight that has spanned decades, and administrations. And it goes to a long-standing debate about how far police brass -- under any Pittsburgh mayor -- can be trusted.

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