Command Performance | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Command Performance

In the city's southern neighborhoods, a commander faces new challenges

If you're a male patrolman in the Pittsburgh Police Department's Zone 3, you literally can't take a leak without Commander RaShall Brackney knowing about it. Her office is separated from the men's room by a thin wall, and Brackney can hear every flush. Not that she wants to: She prides herself on being an assertive supervisor ... officers occasionally refer to her as "Brack-Attack" ... but there are limits.

"Some of these guys must have bladder-control problems," she grouses as the toilet flushes again.

It could be worse: Her crime-prevention officer has a desk in the station's boiler room. During shift changes, the locker room gets so congested that some officers change in their cars. Located in the South Side, the station has been cramped ever since mid-2003, when the city merged Zone 3 and Zone 4 as a cost-cutting move. Some 140 officers now work out of the station, which covers the southern third of the city. The only free space is the now-unused holding cells ... and even these serve as supply closets.

But Brackney has festooned her office with plants and votive candles in defiance of the office's gym-teacher ambience. And while she's been on the job for only two months, she has an ambition commensurate with the size of her new zone, the largest in the city.

"The community is hungry for change," Brackney says. "They can see that some of these communities are on the edge, and if we don't grab hold of them, we could lose them."

Community leaders have only praise for Brackney's predecessor, retired Commander William Joyce. But they agree expectations are high. "Balancing the needs of all the neighborhoods in this district will be a challenge," says Rick Belloli, head of the South Side Local Development Corporation. "But we're thrilled she's here."

There's reason for optimism: Brackney formerly commanded Zone 5, the East End zone that is site of some of the city's most crime-ridden neighborhoods. During her tenure, the zone experienced the steepest crime drop in the city, while playing Officer Friendly in ways that range from bike giveaways to movie rentals.

Brackney is bringing some of those strategies to Zone 3. But her transfer to the South Side may suggest how easily policing can be tripped up by politics. And the cramped, dingy confines of her new home suggest just how difficult are the challenges she, and her officers, still face.

Brackney, 43, isn't what you expect in a police officer. She's 5-foot-7 and weighs less than 130 pounds. "So I don't know about my ability to intimidate," she says.

Which is why she tries not to rely on it.

Several years ago, I watched Brackney subdue a roomful of angry protesters. Some of them had traveled across the state from Chester to a Downtown firm that helped build a waste incinerator in their neighborhood. They demanded to speak to a company executive, and refused to leave even after the police were called. They sat in the lobby, waiting for whatever came next.

What they got was Brackney, then a lieutenant, bounding from the elevator. "How's everybody doing?" she asked brightly. Her smile was as electric ... and effective ... as a stun gun. Within minutes, the protesters agreed to depart, dispersed more speedily than a SWAT team could have.

Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizens Police Review Board, lauds such tactics. Brackney "always seems to diminish the warrior image of a police officer," she says. "She's an example of what professional law enforcement is about with a changing face."

In fact, Brackney's career has both reflected and shaped the changes taking place within the police department.

A native of Homewood whose parents "believed strongly in education," Brackney graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 1984. She contends it was nearly "a fluke" that she became a police officer. She applied almost as a lark, she says: "The whole time I was thinking, 'There's no way I'm getting hired. This is a police academy.'"

But Pittsburgh was in no position to reject a qualified female candidate. The department was, in fact, required to recruit a woman for every male, thanks to a federal court order prompted by a discrimination lawsuit. Partly because of that decree, which was in effect between 1976 and 1991, some of the department's most seasoned veterans today are women. Brackney is one of six women on the department's 13-person command staff. According to a survey of nearly 250 large police departments by the National Center for Women and Policing, that's the highest percentage of female commanders in the country.

Brackney was born to a German/Italian father and a Native American/black mother: She says they had to travel to Washington, D.C., to be married. "Being a minority and a woman gives you sense of the damage you can do by being oblivious," she says. So when the department began offering cultural-diversity training in the mid-1990s, Brackney volunteered to help compile the manual. Her efforts replaced an initial training program that "officers thought was too simple," says Robert McNeilly, the police chief under former Mayor Tom Murphy. "I understand they had to pick up pieces of fruit or something."

While Brackney worked through the ranks during the 1990s, the department's own culture was shifting. A wave of retirements forced the city to hire new, relatively inexperienced officers. Increased complaints of police misconduct led to lawsuits and the creation of Pittinger's review board.

Many officers opposed the board, which voters created in 1997 to investigate complaints about police misconduct. Not long after the board was created, Pittinger recalls, there was "a volatile meeting" with department brass about how the board and the department could work together. "There was actual table-pounding," Pittinger says. But Brackney tried "to de-escalate the whole thing. She came up with a working group" to bridge gaps between police and their overseers. The group "never happened, but she was trying to create a constructive resolution. I've seen her do that many times."

Arguably, being a woman helps. "[W]omen police officers utilize a style of policing that relies less on physical force and more on communications skills," reports the National Center for Women and Policing. Citing a variety of national and international studies, the Center's 2002 report Equality Denied asserts, "[W]omen are often better at defusing potentially violent confrontations, and are less likely to become involved in use of excessive force situations."

Indeed, perhaps the most notable incident of Brackney's career was a confrontation she didn't become more involved in. Before working in Zone 5, Brackney presided over the department's SWAT team. During a 2002 standoff with Homewood resident Cecil Brookins, Brackney's current boss, police Chief Dom Costa, took command of the scene despite being off-duty. In the confusion about who was in charge, Costa and another officer were shot. An internal police report, later made public, faulted Brackney for talking to the press without authorization, and raised questions about the actions taken by her husband, Sgt. Ronald Griffin, a negotiator on the scene. Costa accused Griffin of abandoning him just as Brookins was being taken into custody. But the report noted that "Costa repeatedly failed to communicate his plan with others" and recommended discipline only for him and another officer.

Brackney's tenure in Zone 5 has been less controversial. Aggie Brose, the deputy director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, credits Brackney with addressing not just major crimes but quality of life issues like abandoned cars. (As residents in some Zone 3 neighborhoods can attest, "Abandoned cars can be havens for criminal activity," Brose says. "They'll store drugs and weapons inside them.")

And Brackney isn't above bullying absentee landlords when their tenants cause problems. "The best way to sink your teeth into them is to go after their money," she says. So begins a program of legal harassment: "I find out who owns the house they live in, then I call the Health Department and building inspectors to see if there are violations. We call probation officers, the Bureau of Building Inspection, we can call Section 8."

The final step is a letter from the U.S. Attorney's office addressed to the landlord, advising them of trouble with their tenants and urging them to check if such behavior violates the terms of their lease.

Isn't that kind of Big Brother-like?

"God-daggone right!" Brackney exclaims. "And it's effective."

Brackney's approach to policing does have a softer side. At Zone 5, she used federal funds to lend out AV equipment so local community groups could make presentations. It loaned out lawn-care equipment to churches trying to spruce up the neighborhood. When a local video-rental store closed, the owner donated her tapes to the police. "Minorities are often uncomfortable going into libraries," Brackney says.

If they're less uncomfortable going into a police station, Brose credits ideas like the program in which police gave area children a Christmas Eve surprise: unclaimed bicycles recovered from thieves, and fixed by volunteers. "Things like that build a relationship with children and young folks," says Brose ... and that pays dividends.

It would be easy to see these activities "as touchy-feely," Brackney acknowledges. But last year, serious crime rates in her zone dropped by 5.5 percent, while crime rates in other zones were mostly flat.

Given that success, the biggest question about Brackney may be why she was transferred. Community leaders in the East End bemoan her departure, which took place shortly after Mayor Bob O'Connor took office. "It was a great loss to us, definitely," says Rev. James Simms, an Allegheny County Councilor whose church is in Zone 5.

Brackney won't say much about the move. But according to McNeilly, East End Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle "was not happy with Commander Brackney." Carlisle wanted daily personal updates from Brackney, he says. "I think she had a lot of demands I don't think any commander could live up to.

"She sent us a letter demanding [Brackney] be moved," McNeilly adds. McNeilly refused, because "we were really seeing dramatic crime reductions there. But Councilwoman Carlisle was allied with Bob O'Connor, and I told RaShall she'd be moved right after the new mayor took office."

"I'm tempted to say balderdash," counters Dick Skrinjar, spokesman for Mayor Bob O'Connor. "OK, I will say it: balderdash." Brackney was transferred, he said, because "Her skills are needed where she is now. I guess all ex-managers second-guess the line-up of the current manager; they have nothing else to do."

When asked about tension between her and Brackney, Carlisle says, "It's the first I've heard of it." As to McNeilly's account, Carlisle responds, "I'm not even dignifying that with a comment."

As Brackney's transfer reflects, no matter how ambitious a police commander is, her success often depends on policy decisions made elsewhere.

Consider the Zone 3 station itself. "It's too small for all the work that gets accomplished out of there," admits McNeilly. When he merged Zone 3 and Zone 4, he says, he kept the South Side station because it was more central. But "We had hoped to move it to some other location."

That seems unlikely for now. O'Connor has said he hopes to return the old Zone 4 station to public-safety use, and Skrinjar says that all options "are on the table" when it comes to relocating the current station. But he acknowledges, "There's no deadline set" for such a decision. Given the city's financial travails, future investments are in doubt: O'Connor recently put on hold plans to bring the force up to 900 officers.

Brackney is stretching resources where she can: Belloli, of the South Side Local Development Corporation, credits her with one innovation already. On weekend nights, many off-duty officers provide security to Carson Street bars. They often stood just inside the door, but Brackney issued a directive requiring them to be outside at all times instead. In the winter, that means colder officers, but Belloli says it also means "Suddenly, we've got 25 officers or more on the street every weekend night."

But community leaders are feeling the strain, with the loudest complaints coming from neighborhoods once served by Zone 4. "Crime was a problem before Zone 4 closed," says Norene Beatty, head of the West End Elliott Citizens Council. "But now the response time is longer, there's less visibility of officers.

"She's been making the rounds, and I really give her an A for effort," Beatty says of Brackney. But Zone 3 is "one-third of the city. If anything is unfair, the size of the zone is." Beatty wishes officers on patrol could be as visible as their commander. Brackney "wants her police officers in patrol cars; she says beat cops don't work," Beatty says. "I disagree with her about that, but she doesn't have enough officers to do it. She's suggested starting block watches, but people are so afraid of retaliation they don't want to get invovled."

Beatty sees her community becoming more transient, as longtime homeowners are replaced by unfamiliar renters. In such circumstances, demands for "community policing," in which officers are detailed to specific neighborhoods, are common. Such officers don't just make arrests, but respond to quality-of-life concerns ... vacant lots, abandoned cars, even ensuring that trash gets picked up. "You'd think that would have nothing to do with community policing," says Louis Mayo, a Virginia-based expert on, and advocate for, the program. "But it builds confidence in an officer and helps produce information."

McNeilly essentially shuttered Pittsburgh's Community Oriented Policing in 2002, but Brackney is trying to fill some of the void. She may attend three or four community meetings a night, so that officers who would otherwise be at those meetings are freed up to patrol. Brackney sounds out the community not just about crime, but to address concerns like vacant city lots and crumbling steps. "It's not crime that forces people out of a neighborhood," she says. "It's the rumor of crime."

Brackney "sounds like she's making a good start" on a community-policing agenda, Mayo says. But he adds that "community policing works best when officers are assigned to specific areas." For that, "You really need the support of the chief's office."

Police spokeswoman Tammy Ewin says Costa supports community policing "as a philosophy for all officers to embrace," but he has no plans to re-establish the program McNeilly scrapped. And Brackney herself, who has lived all her life in Zone 5, is at a disadvantage in her new zone. "I have no sense of direction, so getting lost is a staple," she admits.

So is running afoul of neighborhood pride. At a community meeting in Crafton Heights, Brackney "made a reference like 'over the hill in McKees Rocks ...'" Beatty recalls. "Well, over the hill is Crafton! She ruffled some feathers there."

But if anyone can overcome such challenges, says the BGC's Aggie Brose, it's Brackney. "She comes at you like a tornado," Brose says. "She doesn't have the manpower to do community policing, but she'll give you what we can. She's going to look at those hot-spots and deploy resources to them."

To Brose, that's all a community can ask for. But Norene Beatty worries it won't be enough. Brackney "wants to address the hot spots. I assume that's all she's able to do. But you've got to worry about the whole fire." When Brackney "asked me for my wish list [of crime priorities], she was stunned, I think. She said, 'I have to take it in baby steps.'"

Still, Beatty says, "She's young, and she brings a zeal to succeed. It's almost like she wants to be Wonder Woman, and God bless her for it."