Repeat Offenders | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Repeat Offenders

Another year, another lawsuit against Pittsburgh Police

Once again, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the Pittsburgh Police — this time over hiring practices that allegedly discriminate against blacks. As ACLU attorney Vic Walczak noted during an Aug. 23 press conference, one quarter of the city's residents are black, but fewer than 4 percent of officers hired over the past decade have been. "That in and of itself should tell you something's wrong," Walczak argued. 

Yet the ACLU's complaint makes the bureau sound less like the Ku Klux Klan ... and more like the Keystone Kops. 

For example, the suit contends that preferred candidates — those with family or other personal ties to the force — sometimes receive answers to oral exams in advance. In fact, it alleges, during the test, some "nervous candidates accurately provided answers to [questions] that had not been provided yet." During the physical test, meanwhile, favored candidates get credit for "sit-ups that ... did not meet the applicable standard" and during footraces, test administrators "run along with and encourage" them.

"At every step in the process," Walczak claimed last week, "there is some kind of shenanigan going on."

The city, in turn, has heaped derision on the ACLU. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, for one, jibed that Walczak must be looking to build an addition to his home. Officials have also criticized the two named plaintiffs, James Foster and Mike Sharp. Sharp, they say, acknowledged smoking pot at least 800 times, while Foster had multiple moving violations and bad employment references. (Both Sharp and Foster deny those claims.) 

"I don't want to talk bad about anybody," city personnel director Judy Hill Finegan says. "But they sued us. ... And it appears to me that some people need to reflect on themselves and whether they are appropriate candidates for this job."

And for me, at least one part of the ACLU complaint doesn't pass the smell test. It asserts that the "chief's roundtable" — in which top brass make the final call on whom to hire — often makes decisions based on "cronyism" rather than "objective criteria." But police Chief Nate Harper himself is black, and no one's suggesting he opposes diversity. So why wouldn't the roundtable arbitrarily favor black candidates?

(The complaint asserts that roundtable participants "decide by vote" who to hire. Finegan denies that: "It's the chief's pick.") 

But the city hasn't always made the best case for itself, either. Days before the ACLU suit, the city announced its newest assistant police chief would be George Trosky, who made national news in 1989, when he was filmed apparently beating up a Grateful Dead fan. He was also accused of domestic violence, though the charges were later dropped. 

By all accounts, Trosky has been a skilled commander who made the best of his second chance. Even so, that's two more chances than Foster and Sharp got. No wonder they're aggrieved — especially given a lack of diversity the city itself acknowledges. 

"We're not where we need to be," Finegan says. "But we are making progress." The city has sought to broaden the pool of applicants for police bureau jobs, she notes: "We've worked with community-based organizations, religious groups," to find potential applicants, while also seeking candidates from other states. 

Even Walczak lauded those efforts. But if allegations of favoritism prove true, it could mean that hiring police from Florida may not solve problems in our own back yard.

After all, this isn't the first time a lack of diversity has generated headlines. Back in 2000, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that only two officers out of a class of 36 were black. (By comparison, in a class whose diversity Ravenstahl trumpeted last week, two out 41 recruits were black.) Under then-mayor Tom Murphy, the paper reported, "the city has been working ... with community groups, churches and other organizations" to find more black recruits. 

Ravenstahl expanded those efforts by, for example, providing test-preparation for exams. Still, I can think of only one period in recent memory when there weren't complaints about a lack of diversity: between 1975 and 1991, when a federal court order mandated equal hiring of black and female officers.  

And that may be the only solution that works. Good intentions are important. But as every cop knows, sometimes to gain control of a situation, you have to use force.

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