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Voting Rites

A chance for city to heal from a tragic death

Like many others in town, I've heard a lot about Ka'Sandra Wade in the month since her tragic death. Some of the stories, like the way she greeted coworkers each day with a cheery "Bonjour," were easy to listen to. Others were harder to hear, like the accounts of her increasingly fractious relationship with Anthony L. Brown, the father of her 10-year-old son. 

But the thing that haunts me most was something Helen Gerhardt, who'd worked with Wade at the community-empowerment group Action United, recalled Wade saying about the police last summer. 

"She told me, ‘This is Homewood. I don't expect them to care,'" Gerhardt said. 

In fact, Gerhardt says, police did care enough to be on hand while Wade removed some belongings from Brown's apartment (though Gerhardt can't remember a precise date or the officers involved). And police respond to domestic disputes — often the most dangerous they face — all the time, in neighborhoods all across the city. 

But it's easy to forget that for all the cheery headlines about Pittsburgh's "livability," struggling communities like Homewood haven't gotten the news. And Gerhardt's story stuck with me partly because of the fear that — in the end — Pittsburgh might have lived down to Wade's expectations. 

Hours before her death on New Year's Eve, Wade called 911 from Brown's apartment, giving an address before the line went dead. But when officers arrived at the scene, they were answered by Brown, who refused to let them in. And for a variety of reasons — none of which can ever seem adequate — they left the scene without speaking to Wade herself. Wade was found dead the next day, apparently shot to death by Brown, who killed himself in a standoff with police.

Everyone from District Attorney Stephen Zappala to the people who write letters to the editor has faulted the officers dispatched to Brown's home for not doing more. But part of what makes Wade's death so haunting is the number of factors that might have helped set the stage for it.  

Would things have turned out differently if the call hadn't come during a shift change, on New Year's Eve, when festivities Downtown demand extra attention? Would having more sergeants and other supervisors on duty have made a difference, as Pittsburgh City Councilor Patrick Dowd has suggested? Would Wade have had more faith in the system if the city's police force were more diverse, and more of its members lived in her community?

Domestic-violence advocates are calling for new rules to govern how police respond to 911 calls; City Councilor Ricky Burgess has proposed new domestic-violence training requirements. And inevitably, Wade's death has become an issue in this year's mayoral race. It was among several police-related issues that arose during a Jan. 27 political forum in Squirrel Hill. Among them: Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's management style and the willingness of one of his challengers, City Councilor Bill Peduto, to let police move out of the city in exchange for concessions on other work rules. 

Those might sound like abstract issues, or election-season talking points. And because we haven't had a competitive mayoral race in more than a decade, many voters are still wondering if this time will be any different. Even at the Squirrel Hill forum, one question posed by the audience asked whether having two challengers — Peduto and City Controller Michael Lamb — risked throwing the race to Ravenstahl. 

But this year, maybe we shouldn't wait to see how the election shapes up before we decide whether to engage in the debate. Maybe we should do it the other way around. 

Earlier this month, activists joined with members of Wade's family and circle of friends for a memorial in East Liberty. There were calls for more gun regulations, better rules for handling domestic-violence calls, a need to raise awareness of abuse in poor communities. None of it was enough, but all of it was necessary. And at the end, Wade's mother, Sharon Jordan, tearfully told the crowd, "I'm going to do whatever I can do to help all these other women."

Maryellen Deckerd, Action United's  western regional director, told me Wade was on track for a "leadership role. ... She was going to be a change-maker."

She still can be.

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