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Military Police

Military-style police tactics reflect -- and arguably worsen -- distrust between black neighborhoods and police

The Lenco BEAR measures 11 feet tall, 9 feet wide and 25 feet long. Its roomy interior includes an on-board communications center, with power ports for laptop computers, a 40,000-BTU air-conditioner and enough power to operate a refrigerator.

Just the thing for a long, drawn-out siege.

The BEAR (an acronym for Ballistic Engineered Armored Response) comfortably transports 12 to 14 police officers, even when they're clad in full tactical gear. Each side of the armor-plated vehicle features four "gun ports" capable of accommodating sniper rifles or other weapons. A rooftop hatch opens up and forms a rotating turret.

Thanks to its bulletproof plating, the BEAR weighs 20 tons, and yet it can reach speeds of up to 75 mph. According to a Lenco marketing video, the vehicle's front bumper has "extra ramming power" for pushing aside cars, walls and doors. All of this is available to your local police department at a price of slightly more than $250,000.

This isn't the vehicle Officer Friendly drives to work. But it's coming to a neighborhood near you.

Well, maybe not if you live in Shadyside, Squirrel Hill or Point Breeze. But community leaders in some of the city's black neighborhoods -- like Homewood and Lincoln-Larimer -- have already seen the BEAR prowling their streets.

Police say the vehicle, and the militaristic tactics it represents, are increasingly necessary on some of Pittsburgh's meanest streets.

"In 2005, Homewood led this city in homicide deaths," says Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper. "We don't want this to become a police state, but these tactics serve to put fear into the criminal element."

The problem, say some community leaders, is they put fear into the non-criminal element too. Police say military-style tactics have become more necessary as residents become increasingly hostile to police. Community leaders, meanwhile, say those tactics help explain why residents are hostile in the first place.

"I do believe the police think they are helping, but they're causing trauma to the neighborhood," says the Rev. Ricky Burgess, a candidate for Pittsburgh City Council in District 9 and pastor at Homewood's Nazarene Baptist Church. District 9 consists of some of Pittsburgh's poorest communities, and Burgess' church sits on Hamilton Avenue, an epicenter for East End crime. But while Burgess sees the effects of crime every day, he says the police response is going too far.

"[A]t some point they have to realize that to make a difference, they can give us a constant, community-oriented police presence without giving us a paramilitary force and without turning our community into downtown Beirut."

The BEAR was on the prowl last August, in response to six people being shot in three separate incidents in Homewood in less than 24 hours. Accompanying the armored vehicle was a State Police helicopter, a score of police cruisers and a SWAT team in full battle gear: helmets, combat boots and bulletproof vests.

Over a two-day period, officers conducted a sweep of 27 abandoned homes, looking for drugs and guns. According to an Aug. 19 story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

"Carrying assault rifles and accompanied by a large armored tactical van that looked like something out of a war zone, ... officers searched vacant homes and empty lots for weapons and drug caches. Neighbors stood on sidewalks gawking at the large, black tactical van. A rifleman poked out of a hole on top of the van with his rifle trained on the street."

According to Assistant Police Chief William Bochter, not a single person was arrested during the two-day sweep. But four months later, the helicopter was back, as were dozens of officers from city, state and federal law-enforcement agencies. Once again, African-American communities were the target: Homewood, Lincoln-Larimer, Hazelwood and the Hill District.

The Dec. 11 sweep, which lasted about eight hours, was what police call a "saturation patrol." And there will be more like it to come.

According to Harper and Bochter, the sweeps begin with an advance team of officers in plainclothes conducting surveillance. The undercover officers set up on various corners and observe anyone who might be dealing drugs or carrying weapons. Police in uniforms and bulletproof vests then descend on the scene, making arrests and conducting searches.

In the August raids, Bochter and Harper say using SWAT officers to secure abandoned homes was vital for the safety of the officers.

"You don't know what you're going to get when you enter these homes, so we use our SWAT officers to enter and secure these places," says Bochter. Vacant houses are frequently used for gang and drug activity, he notes.

The procedures used in both sweeps, Harper says, were legal; no one was detained without probable cause. In fact, not a single complaint was filed with the city's Citizens Police Review Board, which is responsible for investigating claims of police misconduct.

Then again, given the tactics used, the sweeps didn't result in that many criminal charges either.

In the December sweep, officers confiscated four bags of marijuana, an ounce and a half of cocaine, a quarter-ounce of heroin and two weapons. A total of 21 people were arrested.

"No, we probably didn't get any Mr. Big in these raids," Bochter acknowledges. "But maybe in these patrols we get somebody who has information we can use that will lead us to Mr. Big."

Police weren't expecting to nab a criminal mastermind to begin with. Saturation patrols don't target specific criminals, or even specific criminal hangouts. Instead, they are dragnets, canvassing whole neighborhoods where police expect to find criminal activity taking place. Not surprisingly, such tactics are more likely to arrest street-level dealers than criminal kingpins.

Indeed, what prompted the December patrol was not a gang shootout, a standoff with an armed gunman, or a bomb threat. What prompted the display was an anniversary.

In the press conference that followed the operation, law enforcement noted that the sweep coincided with the death, exactly one year before, of a state police trooper, Cpl. Joseph Pokorny. In 2005, Pokorny had been shot to death with his own gun, allegedly by Leslie D. Mollett of Knoxville, who has yet to face trial in the killing.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's coverage of the sweep was typical: "21 Arrest Salute to Slain Trooper" the headline announced:

Many suggestions have been made for ways to honor Pokorny, including naming an overpass or highway segment after him, said state police Maj. Frank Monaco. While the community may still choose such tributes, Monaco said law enforcement officials wanted to honor Pokorny in their own way.

"We will not tolerate violence against any police officer," Monaco also told reporters. "That will bring us out in force."

Fair enough, say critics of the operation. Except the sweep was carried out in the predominantly African-American neighborhoods of the East End -- and Pokorny had been shot in the western, mostly white suburb of Carnegie, 14 miles away.

If police were reacting to Pokorny's death, "[T]hen why not take your armored truck, your helicopters and your SWAT team into Carnegie where the man was killed?" asks Jasiri X, a minister with the Nation of Islam and community activist.

Jasiri X says police didn't go to Carnegie "because the idea wasn't to help a community. It was to make a point and say, 'Don't mess with us or this is what you get.' And when they want to send a message, where do they go? Right into the black community."

Police say that the locations for the patrols are selected based on the incidence of criminal activity. Bochter says Homewood was simply "next on the list," and the raid there just happened to coincide with the date to honor Pokorny.

Harper adds that no matter what the reason for the patrol's timing, residents were grateful for the extra attention. "After the patrol in December, I had residents come up to me and thank me," he says. "These people have been held hostage for far too long by the criminal element, and we're going to use every tool available to help them."

In fact, saturation patrols will become increasingly common. As planned by law enforcement, the patrols will be a joint effort between local, state and federal authorities. The sweeps are funded by a $124,000 grant from Project Safe Neighborhoods, a federally funded program.

But neighborhood activists argue that the war on crime won't be won with armored vehicles and cops in paramilitary uniforms. The best crime-fighting tool, they say, is neighborhood cooperation and trust -- and that's just what saturation patrols threaten to erode.

"How many people are going to cooperate with you if you're rolling down the street looking for a fight, bringing a tank and a helicopter?" asks Paradise Gray, a community activist and cofounder of One Hood, a group working toward unifying individuals regardless of where they are from. "The community isn't helping the police because they have been brutalized, abused and ignored by the police for so long. They don't trust them."

And that distrust comes at a price. Across the country, police are sounding the alarm over the dwindling number of witnesses willing to come forward in many urban crimes. In the April 2007 issue of The Atlantic, Jeremy Kahn notes that many minority communities are seeing "the spread of the gangland code of silence, or omerta, from organized crime to the population at large." While many potential witnesses are simply scared of retaliation, Kahn notes, the growth of a "culture of silence in minority communities has been facilitated by a gradual breakdown of trust in the police and government."

Gray sees a similar process taking place here. "What are you supposed to do when you're in an abusive, dysfunctional relationship?" he asks. "You're supposed to break it off. The community has broken it off because of the way they've been treated."

It doesn't take long to detect that distrust in neighborhoods like Homewood and Lincoln-Larimer. The residents are wary of outsiders, be they police officers or husky, white City Paper reporters. For example, here are some of the insights about police/community relations this correspondent was able to gather from residents over the course of several hours:

"I'm not talking to you about the police."

"Get the fuck out of here."

Suspicion is evident even in residents who do stop long enough to talk, like the 20-something woman buying a lollipop for her child at the Larimer Avenue Grocery. While she, like other residents, declined to give her name, she did have this suggestion when asked how police could help improve the neighborhood:

"They can stay out of here."

Gray is not at all surprised by such reactions.

"What did you expect?" he asks. "As far as our community is concerned, the media is the police in Pittsburgh." The laudatory coverage given to the Dec. 11 saturation patrol is just one example, he says. "There's always an investigation into what one of us did, never into what is being done to us."

T. Rashad Byrdsong, executive director of the Community Empowerment Association located in Homewood, agrees.

"The community is suspicious of outsiders," he says. "[T]o be honest, I think a little healthy suspicion is good. ... [A] lot of their interaction with police and the media has been negative and sensational."

Still, the resulting animosity puts police in a catch-22: "[T]he neighbors want crime to stop, but they don't ever want to see the police in their neighborhood," says Harper. "It shouldn't take an occupying force and an armored vehicle to take care of the crime in a Pittsburgh neighborhood. Unfortunately, we're dealing with areas that have a whole lot of gun violence."

And not just in Pittsburgh. In the past 20 years, the use of SWAT-style police units for very non-traditional SWAT-type policing has grown.

According to a study conducted by Eastern Kentucky University professor Peter Kraska, in the 1980s SWAT teams nationwide were called out about 3,000 times a year. That has grown to about 40,000 today, equivalent to a national rate of more than 100 SWAT deployments every day.

Kraska says the SWAT phenomenon has grown significantly from its original purpose -- to handle the occasional volatile hostage situation that a city might encounter. He says the traditional role of SWAT was to react to a crisis situation.

"However, nowadays you'll find that 85 percent of their work is proactive -- serving no-knock warrants and patrolling high-crime neighborhoods," Kraska says. "I thought that once the panic of the 1980s and 1990s drug wars subsided, so would the use of these policing techniques. Instead, they've increased significantly."

And mostly, he says, those tactics do little more than alienate the community.

"[T]hey usually end up being more like symbolic gestures than techniques that actually accomplish something."

Peter Cassidy, a freelance journalist and director of research at Triarche Research Group, spent much of the 1990s covering the increased use of paramilitary techniques by police -- tactics he documented in a 1997 Covert Action Quarterly article, "Operation Ghetto Storm: The Rise in Paramilitary Policing."

"At first the people in these poor neighborhoods are happy to see any kind of law enforcement," Cassidy says today. "[T]hen the cops bring in their toys and things start to sour. Patrols like this lead to the normalization of force."

The streets became more dangerous during the 1990s, Cassidy says, and thanks to funding sources like Project Safe Neighborhoods, there was money available for purchasing military-style equipment. Once departments began buying these tools, they changed the face of law enforcement.

"You have a neighborhood that would love to cultivate relationships with the police, and then the police come in with armored vehicles and that's just scary and really uncalled for," Cassidy says. "I think it's hard for the police to recover from things like this."

In the case of the saturation patrols, Harper says, having a helicopter overhead deters crime and keeps officers safe in places where gunfire is an almost daily occurrence. And such tactics serve as a deterrent even after police leave: When the BEAR rolls in, like it did in August, he says, criminal activity stops. At least for a little while.

"Open-air drug sales stop, at least for a few days" after a sweep, says Harper. "We get feedback from people who are glad to see it because it puts fear into the criminal element.

"We come in, we make an arrest and we try and make a dent in the neighborhood crime. At the very least, we give the neighborhood a break from the craziness that's going on in the streets."

"What this is saying is that the police cannot stop crime in our neighborhoods," counters Jasiri X. "The best they can do is conduct all-out assaults ... and even that only gives us a short period of time to feel safe."

Burgess, of Nazarene Baptist Church, describes his response to the stepped-up police tactics as "bittersweet." On the one hand, he says, "while you want them taking an interest and these sweeps temporarily stop the crime, the criminal element returns when the police leave." The only thing that has changed, he says, is "the neighborhood is left traumatized by this big police action -- and then they still have to deal with the crime."

Elizabeth Pittinger, the head of the city's Citizen Police Review Board, says the saturation sweeps are really just a symptom of a larger problem.

"Watching the police roll into your neighborhood in an armored vehicle is offensive to a lot of people and seems out of place," she says. "But by the same token, the neighborhood is known to be violent and the use of automatic weapons is frequent, yet we still expect them to go in."

To Pittinger, the sweeps represent "police backing away from going into these communities, and when they do go in, they're probably going in a little too harshly.

"But this situation is not just about saturation sweeps and armored vehicles," she adds. "It's just a symbol of the tension between the police and the African-American community that has been growing for years."

So if tanks and helicopters aren't the answer, what is? More foot patrols? More meetings between police and community leaders?

Some say that would be a good place to start.

"These different sides have to come together and develop a community plan to help the neighborhood," says Carolyne Abdullah. "If you try and impose a plan the neighborhood doesn't want, you're never going to solve the problems."

Abdullah is the program director of Study Circles Resource Center, a nonprofit organization based in Connecticut ( that works to improve community relations. She has done a lot of work with communities and police departments, including in Cincinnati, where rioting in the 1990s, following police shootings of black citizens, drew national attention. She says it's important for the community and the police to sit down and begin "working through their problems and tearing down the stereotypes" that are keeping both sides apart.

"Community engagement does not simply mean an officer driving through the neighborhood. If you're going to solve a crime problem permanently, you have to have the community's participation."

All sides have to be free to speak openly about the problem over the course of five or six weekly meetings -- not over one media-attended meeting where the goal is to placate each other more than solving problems.

"Through this process," she explains, "all those involved can work to form a joint plan that is going to stick because it was developed through mutual respect and understanding."

CEA's Byrdsong says a similar effort is needed here.

"In most cities dealing with community crime and violence, there seems to be a lot of focus on crime suppression, and that seems to be the main concentration here in Pittsburgh," Byrdsong says. "But what we really need is social intervention to deal with the systemic problems: education, lack of infrastructure and economic development, homelessness and substance abuse. ... [L]et's be proactive and develop a plan to deal with the root issues ... instead of conducting the same old knee-jerk responses where, unfortunately, a lot of constitutional rights are abused."

But patience is wearing thin.

"No more meetings. No more meetings," says Jasiri X, with a smile on his face. "Every so often, we go, we sit down and we talk about the problems and as soon as the cameras go away, we've got tanks rolling through Homewood."

Gray says African-American neighborhoods need community policing: officers out on foot, making their constant presence known, interacting with the community and breaking down the barriers that have been built through years of bad blood.

Gray says through One Hood, he and others have been trying to get the word out that to solve the problem, community members have to speak out about crime in their neighborhoods.

"We try and tell them it's not snitching," Gray says. "Snitching is I'm selling drugs, get caught and then give you up to save myself. But when you see crime happen, when you see someone get shot, you should come forward with that information.

"But that's the problem. They believe that if they come forward to help, they won't be protected by a police force they never see and don't trust. If the police want that kind of relationship with the community, they have to stop treating Homewood like it's Baghdad."

And if police aren't going to walk the beat, members of the community have started. Members of One Hood and other groups have begun walking the streets and talking to neighbors -- those involved in crime and those who are caught in the middle. The walks, which have drawn as many as three dozen marchers, were inspired after two children, 3 and 4 years old, were victims of a shooting in Homewood

"We wanted to show that there are men who are not afraid of our children and are not afraid to walk the streets at night without weapons," says Jasiri X. "We've come to believe that if the climate is going to change out here, then we have to do it ourselves."

Harper says he is aware of One Hood's efforts, and says more such outreach from the community is necessary.

"It's going to take a lot of work to undo the foothold that the criminal element has in the community," says Harper. "We also fully understand that we can't do it alone. This can't just be a police action; we need the community's help."

However, the police have promised more sweeps in the future. That's bad news for any future relationship, says Jasiri X.

"They say there will be more, but I keep praying that there won't be. If this continues, we are going to see a wedge driven so much deeper.

"This has to stop."