Declining Diversity: In the wake of Ferguson, activists look at Pittsburgh' own failures in police diversity | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Declining Diversity: In the wake of Ferguson, activists look at Pittsburgh' own failures in police diversity

"At the foundation of the problems in Ferguson are the same racial disparities that exist in Pittsburgh."

Renee Wilson Gray has memories of the police officer who lived three doors down from her childhood house in Homewood.

"They cared about the community they were policing, because it was their community," she says. "They knew who was the bad apples and they knew who was the good apples."

Gray was a teenager in 1975, the year a federal judge mandated the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police hire black and white officers in equal numbers, a response to charges of racial discrimination in hiring.

And while the quota system had its share of critics, "It certainly diversified the bureau and it gave opportunity to people who otherwise historically were being excluded," says Beth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board.

In 1990, the year before a different judge dissolved the quota system, 22.2 percent of the force was black and nearly 77 percent white, according to a 2002 CPRB report.

Today, though, 13 years after the quota system was abolished, the force is getting less diverse. Only 13 percent of city police officers are black, while 85 percent are white, according to the bureau's recently released 2013 annual report. That's a 2 percentage-point decrease in black officers since 2012.

By contrast, 26 percent of the city's population is black, 2010 census data show.

And according to a 2012 American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit alleging a "practice of systemic disparate treatment" of African Americans "causing a significant statistical imbalance in hiring," just 14 out of 368 officers hired between 2001 and 2012 were African-American — only 3.8 percent.

"That number's going to keep dropping because most of your African-American officers came in a long time ago with the [consent] decree," says Pennsylvania ACLU legal director Vic Walczak, who notes the ACLU is in the middle of settlement negotiations with the city in the discrimination lawsuit.

The lack of diversity isn't just a problem of optics, say many activists and residents: It can lead to less effective policing, and produce mistrust like the kind that has been boiling over in days of protests over the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

"At the foundation of the problems in Ferguson are the same racial disparities that exist in Pittsburgh," says Paradise Gray, a local hip-hop artist and activist, who is married to Renee Wilson Gray.

He quickly lists other incidents in Pittsburgh in which unarmed black men wound up in violent confrontations with police — from Jordan Miles to Leon Ford, who was shot several times during a traffic stop in Highland Park.

These incidents, Gray believes, could have been defused by officers with better relationships with the people they police.

"When a police officer looks at a 13-year-old white kid, he sees his son," Gray says, but when it's a black teenager, "he sees him as a threat and as a grown man."

For their part, city officials acknowledge there's a diversity problem and say they'll be coming up with "recruitment strategies" in September.

"There's a dynamic going on in public safety in general, where those jobs are not for whatever reason [...] highly sought after" by minority candidates, says public-safety spokesperson Sonya Toler. While Toler declined to comment on the ACLU suit, she acknowledges there is "room for improvement" on diversity throughout the city's Department of Public Safety.

Mayoral spokesperson Tim McNulty wrote in an email that the city is working on several initiatives to address "minority presence in the police bureau," including offering incentives to Pittsburgh Public Schools graduates, recruiting in "economically depressed cities with high minority populations" and  expanding pre-test preparation for the fitness and oral interview elements of the hiring process.

"It's certainly a complicated issue, but one the city is committed to tackling," McNulty says.

And while there are clearly a number of factors at work in shaping the relationship minority communities have with the police, there is a sense of urgency for Renee Wilson Gray, the 53-year-old who grew up in Homewood.

She explains that when they were growing up, she told her four children not to go anywhere alone and to be careful at night: Even if you're doing nothing wrong, people, including police, will be suspicious.

"It's very scary for a black mother," she says. "Every day when they leave outside, you don't know if they're coming back."