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."

Page 2 of 2

"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."

Comments (5)
Comments are closed.