Neighborhood Watched: Residents say negative picture of Homewood painted at Miles' trial is a ‘shame' | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Neighborhood Watched: Residents say negative picture of Homewood painted at Miles' trial is a ‘shame'

"Homewood is not the community most people think it is."

Jordan Miles leaves the U.S. District Courthouse Downtown during his civil trial against three police officers last month.
Jordan Miles leaves the U.S. District Courthouse Downtown during his civil trial against three police officers last month.

When a federal jury issued its verdict in the Jordan Miles trial against three police officers on March 31, some hoped it would provide closure.

"The arrest of Jordan Miles was a troubling and divisive event for the entire community," said U.S. Attorney David Hickton hours after the jury handed down a split verdict. "The jury has spoken. It's time to heal."

"Our community must start healing, and must start rebuilding the trust we must have for safe communities and a better police force," said Mayor Bill Peduto. "I am ready to start that now."

But healing might be difficult — especially in Homewood, where Miles had his 2010 encounter with police

"To just tell people to heal is fucked up," says Vanessa German, an artist and Homewood resident who attended the trial. "How do you heal when the police never came out and said they did anything wrong?"

This was the second civil trial stemming from a January 2010 altercation between Miles and three city police officers on Tioga Street. Miles claims he was walking to his grandmother's house when three police officers jumped out of a car and assaulted him before taking him to jail. He says the officers didn't identify themselves and, at first, he thought he was being robbed. For their part, officers David Sisak, Michael Saldutte and Richard Ewing say they approached Miles because they saw him lurking on the side of a house. They say they identified themselves before Miles ran, and that he had a bulge in his coat they believed to be a gun. (The officers alleged that they saw a soda bottle, a claim Miles denies.)

In the first trial, a jury found for the officers on a claim of malicious prosecution, but could not agree on the charges of false arrest and use of excessive force. This time, the jury found that the officers falsely arrested Miles, but did not use excessive force; jurors awarded Miles roughly $119,000.

While the verdict was a partial victory for Miles, it's cold comfort to some residents of Homewood, which defense attorneys labeled the "home of the drive-by."

And while crime statistics do bear out concerns about violence in the neighborhood, members of the Homewood community say numbers don't tell the whole story.

"To hear the way the defense would portray Homewood through statistics, and through the lens of the police, was discordant to me, because I live in Homewood," German says. "It's not a war zone. I was sitting with my neighbors, and we know what living there is like as opposed to the caricature they painted."

There's no question that Homewood can be dangerous. In 2010, the year of Miles' altercation with police, there were 10 homicides in the neighborhood, out of 57 citywide. But in the following years, the number has decreased. In 2011, the neighborhood had three of the 43 city homicides in the city; in 2012, Homewood accounted for three homicides out of 40 citywide. (Figures for 2013 were not available.)

In the first trial, Miles himself testified to hearing gun shots on a daily basis, a statement defense attorneys repeated to the jury throughout the second trial.

"I know most of you aren't used to ... hearing gunshots every day in your neighborhood," defense attorney James Wymard said in his opening arguments.

Later, Wymard would note that in 2011, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow designated Homewood as the nation's "most dangerous neighborhood."

"This is Homewood, home of the drive-by ... home of the gangbangers," Wymard told the jury. In his closing argument, he praised the officers for being "out there putting their lives on the line, patrolling streets you and I wouldn't dare drive on."

Miles' attorneys objected to such labeling. Despite Wymard's characterizations of Homewood, Joel Sansone argued, "The only persons who ever bothered Jordan Miles in this neighborhood are these three men."

"Homewood is not as bad as people say," says Jerome Jackson, president of Homewood nonprofit Operation Better Block. "We have great residents, great people. I think it's a shame because we do have a lot of good things here."

While defense attorneys referenced Homewood "gang members" and "gang bangers" repeatedly during the trial, Jackson says Homewood's problem with violent crime has decreased since its peak in the 1990s. "Homewood is not the community most people think it is."

Even a police commander, Rashall Brackney, took issue with Wymard's depiction of the community.

"I don't know why they would've characterized it that way," says Brackney, who grew up in Homewood and continues to be involved with the neighborhood. "Characterizing any community that way without a lot of intimate knowledge of that community and how disenfranchised and underrepresented it is can be dangerous."

Policing the area can be dangerous as well. In an April 2013 incident, Officer Morgan Jenkins was shot and Officer Michelle Auge was beaten by a suspect police have identified as James Robert Hill, who'd allegedly escaped from a Braddock halfway house. A trial in that case is pending. Later that summer, an unknown person shot at a police officer standing on a Homewood porch during a call; no suspect was apprehended.

But in court, Brackney testified that in the months before the Miles altercation, Homewood had fewer cases of attacks on police officers than some other communities. In 2009 and 2010, Homewood had fewer cases of aggravated assaults on officers than South Side, the Hill District and the North Shore area.

"When you start to look at the numbers, the likelihood of citizens assaulting [police officers] is much lower. Homewood is actually at the lower end of the scale," Brackney told City Paper after the trial. "Because there's violence perpetrated on the community, [police] think that will translate to harm on officers, but that's not necessarily true."

Neither Pittsburgh police nor public-safety officials returned calls for comment. But Mayor Peduto told City Paper that "[T]here should never be a rush to judgment on any person," based on where they live. "You can use statistics in order to try to create policies of policing, but that should not be a broad brush that is delivered to each person who lives there."

Still, activists say police use the neighborhood's high crime rate to justify their own behavior.

"What I am seeing far too often in the court of law, is being in a high-crime area is ... justification to add on to [justify] reasonable suspicion," says Brandi Fisher, president of the Alliance for Police Accountability. "They state that if you live in an area that's high crime, it's OK for the officers to do what they want."

In the years since the Miles incident, tension between police and Homewood residents has surfaced in a handful of incidents. Among them is a June 2013 encounter involving a local teacher, Dennis Henderson, who was arrested outside of a community meeting on improving relations with police. Henderson raised his voice after police officer Jonathan Gromek drove close to him with his patrol car. Gromek turned his car around and later arrested Henderson, while also handcuffing a bystander who shot footage of the scene.

The incident sparked outrage; Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala later dropped the charges against Henderson. Last month, the Citizen Police Review Board, which reviews complaints of police misconduct, recommended the city fire Gromek, but he remains on the force. (Review-board recommendations are not binding.)

A month after the Henderson incident, brothers Beyshaud El and Will El were detained by police after leaving a Homewood convenience store. Though neither man possessed drugs or weapons, a confrontation ensued, and the brothers were charged with aggravated assault of an officer. In March, Zappala reduced those charges after Fisher's group released a video of the incident, which appeared to show one brother being Tasered and another being slammed against the wall.

The Miles case is "nothing new in terms of the criminalization of the black community and African-American men," says Rashad Byrdsong, whose organization Community Empowerment Association hosted the June 2013 meeting where Henderson was arrested. "What we're talking about with Jordan Miles is a smaller subset of what's going on in the larger community."

Part of the problem, says review-board Executive Director Beth Pittinger, is that officers out on the street may not know Homewood except by reputation.

She said the neighborhood tends to have an influx of younger officers — all three of the officers who arrested Miles were under 30 years old at the time, for example — because police with seniority choose to work in other, less crime-ridden zones.

"They have a very high violent-crime rate and they have the least experienced officers out there patrolling it," Pittinger says. "I think there's anxiety going into a neighborhood with the kind of reputation Homewood has," and younger officers "can be quick to use force because they don't have the maturity."

Pittinger also faults police tactics like the "jump out," in which officers leap from unmarked cars to surprise suspected criminals, including Miles. During his trial, Miles claimed that police didn't identify themselves as officers, and that the sudden appearance of three white men caused him to run from, and struggle with, the officers involved.

"The end question I hear ringing around the halls is, ‘How did he end up looking like that?'" Pittinger says, about the extent of Miles' facial injuries. "And there will never be an answer to that."

Pittinger says that if there's a bright side to the case, it's that, "In light of the Miles verdict, I think perhaps people see the police aren't enjoying as much impunity." She continues, "The fact that they actually found them liable, I think will pique supervisors' interest" and perhaps change police tactics.

Byrdsong, for one, isn't so optimistic.

"How many black men are stopped and frisked for no apparent reason at all?" he asks. "I think [the verdict] is going to be an isolated case. When you look at law enforcement in this country, you see more of a military occupying police force then we did before."

Repairing Homewood's reputation and improving relationships between the community and police is critical to the neighborhood's future, says Pittsburgh City Councilor Ricky Burgess, who represents Homewood. He's been working to increase development, but says it will rely on decreasing violence in the neighborhood.

"What killed the investment is the violence, so as we try to rebuild it the perception of violence puts daggers in the heart of development," Burgess says.

Burgess says he doesn't place the blame solely on police officers: The problem, he says, is a culture of mutual distrust.

"You have a belief from the police that the community hates them, the community disrespects them," Burgess says. "On the other hand, you have the belief from the community that the police hate them. Those two false narratives play out in police-community relations."

He'd like to see officers more actively involved in the community before the animosity becomes even more pronounced.

"I suggest they come and meet the people," Burgess says. "We have to get away from the mindset of occupying the community. I believe in some communities like Homewood, the relationship between police and the community is at crisis level."

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