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Police seek to distance themselves from the community they protect

Very often the best police work is the kind in which nobody gets arrested. The kind where a situation is resolved with everybody going home. 

And sometimes, perhaps, that outcome is more likely if everyone's homes aren't so far apart. 

Take the night of July 14, when demonstrators voiced outrage at George Zimmerman's acquittal in fatally shooting black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. When two dozen demonstrators held a sit-down protest in the middle of Centre Avenue in the Hill District, it seemed the demonstration — which was born out of frustration with the justice system — would end in frustration as well.

But the police commander called to the scene was Rashall Brackney. Like those leading the protest, Brackney is a black woman, and as she spoke with demonstrators, other connections became apparent. Several protesters and observers knew Brackney personally. ("I took hip-hop aerobics with you," one said, prompting some laughter.) Brackney told her officers to back off, rerouting some Sunday-night traffic patterns and, perhaps, the evening's outcome. Shortly after 11 p.m., the protesters left without incident. Centre was reopened, and if police/community tensions hadn't been healed, at least they hadn't gotten any worse.

I don't know how things would have gone had Brackney been a white male, as the vast majority of city police are, or more removed from the protesters' daily lives. But her ties clearly helped defuse tensions on Centre Avenue that night. 

Yet even as she and the protesters spoke, the city's police union was trying to make such ties easier to dissolve.  

Until last year, state law required Pittsburgh police to live within city limits, but Harrisburg eased the requirement last October — saying only that the city may require residency. Police, who have long bridled at the requirement, are now challenging it in arbitration, a closed-door process for handling labor disputes. 

The Fraternal Order of Police says lifting the requirement will make it easier to recruit, and retain, quality officers. Maybe. It's certainly not as if residency is a cure-all: The police accused of beating Homewood teen Jordan Miles, after all, were city residents. Even City Councilor Ricky Burgess, who has proposed holding a citywide referendum on residency this November, admits there are "not a lot of officers" in the black neighborhoods he represents. 

But tensions in those neighborhoods, Burgess predicts, "will be exacerbated by waiving residency." And when council held a July 18 public hearing on Burgess' referendum proposal, the police were nowhere to be seen, other than a brief moment when FOP President Mike LaPorte appeared at the door. It was as if the police have already withdrawn from the community.

The irony is that the police could get their way even without the help of arbitrators. The city's likely next mayor, Bill Peduto, has signaled a willingness to waive residency, in exchange for concessions on other issues, like policies governing promotions and discipline. Such a deal could bring police and residents closer together, while allowing officers to live where they choose. 

Winning in arbitration, though, means police won't give up anything in return. It's a "Get Out of Jail Free" card ... with Pittsburgh as the jail. So they pursue a closed-door labor proceeding, with little apparent regard for public opinion — the sort of approach that only creates more community distrust.

The day before Burgess' hearing, in fact, the Centre Avenue demonstrators returned — this time to City Hall, with an agenda for racial justice they hoped to present to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and other officials. Ravenstahl did not meet with them, though, and so after holding an overnight sit-in outside his office, they went to his Fineview home at 6 a.m., taping their demands to his door. 

Ravenstahl had custody of his son, Cooper, that night, and mayoral spokesperson Marissa Doyle says Cooper "was frightened by strangers at his home." Police now say they are stepping up security around Ravenstahl's house. A situation that could have been handled with five minutes of dialogue, in other words, now requires added police security on yet another city street. 

Which just goes to show: If you ignore the community you're sworn to protect and serve, frustrations have a way of striking close to home. At least for the people who pay your salary.

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