Pittsburgh wants to hire more black officers, some say it has to change from within

Only 13 percent of city police officers are black, serving a community where blacks make up roughly one-quarter of the population

  • Ariel Worthy/WESA

(Pittsburgh) — When Pittsburgh Police Officer Calvin Hall was fatally shot while off duty in July, friends and family remembered him for wanting to make a difference. And his partner, Reggie Eiland, remembers that Hall believed strongly that the police force should resemble the community it served.

Eiland said he and Hall were very much aware of being black officers on a mostly white force, and talked about the police force’s need for more diversity “pretty much every day.”

“We specifically patrolled Allegheny Dwellings and Northview Heights. These are all predominantly black areas,” he said. “To be able to patrol these areas, you should have somebody that’s like the community, in that community, patrolling the community. … It just gives them more of a comfort.”

Hall and Eiland, who still works in Northview Heights and Allegheny Dwellings, were two officers out of an underrepresented group. Only 13 percent of city police officers are black, serving a community where blacks make up roughly one-quarter of the population.

The city has struggled to make up the difference. In an annual statistical report for its police department released this summer, the city noted that of 84 police recruits last year, only four were black.

The city is aware of the problem, said Tim McNulty, a spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto.

“In the past two years we have added a focus on digital and social media to reach as many individuals as possible, and have attended dozens of job fairs and networking functions as well,” he said in a written statement. “Despite these efforts, it is clear the numbers of minority recruits are not in line with the makeup of the city as they should be, and more needs to be done.”

He added that the police, Peduto’s office, and the city’s Human Resources Department are studying new strategies and issues in the application process that “may be hindering fuller participation.”

‘How can I believe that you are sincere?’

Some activists say addressing the problem would require steps beyond such outreach. Local activist Jasiri X, the co-founder and CEO of 1Hood, said one problem was the leadership of the police union, the Fraternal Order of Police.

He noted that the union’s president, Robert Swartzwelder, was named in a grand jury report that said the Pittsburgh Police failed to properly investigate two officer-involved shootings. The report said that Swartzwelder interfered with those investigations by hindering efforts to interview the officers. Swartzwelder did not respond for comment, though the union said the report was inaccurate, and has said his actions were necessary to defend the rights of union members.

But Jasiri said that if they want to be trusted, police should pick new leaders.

“The first thing they should do is remove [Swartzwelder],” Jasiri said. “Because how can I as a black person believe that you are sincere about police/community relationship when he is there?”

Another solution would be to fire officers with disciplinary problems, he said.

“If there’s officers that harbor this type of animosity to our community, if there are officers who are constantly involved in cases of brutality or even domestic violence, they need to be removed,” he said.

The city says it does fire officers for misconduct, but sometimes the union gets them reinstated through an arbitration process spelled out in the police contract.

Jasiri said he and the men who work at 1Hood have been profiled by Pittsburgh police.

“I’ve had young men who work with 1Hood who have had guns pulled out on them, mistaken identity,” he said. “I have an 18-year-old son, he was stopped and searched illegally just walking to his job.”

Eiland, who has been an officer with Pittsburgh for four years, said he experienced being profiled growing up in Prince Georges County in Maryland. He remembers his parents having “the talk” with him: a discussion in which black parents tell their children how to interact with police.

“My parents always taught me to respect the cops, respect any type of authority figure,” he said. “‘Just do what they say now so that you could be able to fight for it later.’”

Sonia Pruitt, who serves as the National Chairperson for the National Black Police Association, says the lack of diversity in police departments is a national issue. She thinks black people do like the police; they just don’t like misconduct.

“There’s just certain actions that they will not stand behind like police brutality, or other issues that are endemic between the police and the community,” she said.

Still, she says, “I don’t think that that prevents especially black people from becoming police officers because what is happening is [younger African Americans are saying], ‘OK, now I feel like I need to do something about this problem. I can’t just keep talking about it. So, I want to become a police officer.’”

Pruitt said bias can sometimes play a role in hiring.

“Talking to some of my peers and other police departments, we seem to all feel that … sometimes there’s a stigma attached to that [minority] person,” she said.

Pruitt said if departments are serious about hiring more black officers, they have to go outside of their own regions.

“You’re going to have to take some trips or something, maybe you can do outreach and go places where there are people who look like the people you want to hire,” she said.

The city did make a recruiting trip to Howard University, a historically black college in Washington D.C., last year. Closer to home, it reaches out to potential officers through social media, and by holding and attending career fairs in neighborhoods with large African-American populations, like Homewood and Garfield. The city also advertises throughout the city, including newspapers, magazines, during commercial breaks on local TV and radio stations.

‘Be the change they want to see’

In the meantime, police leaders are using training to bridge the gap between officers and the community. In August, leaders in Pittsburgh Police attended Racial Intelligence Training and Engagement training, a program that works to create a bias-free, harassment-free workplace.

Police Chief Scott Schubert said one takeaway is that officers should recognize that they way they feel can affect how they do their job.

“If they come to work and they’re upset and they’re angry, they’re going to go out on the street and potentially be angry,” he said. “That’s not good for the community, that’s not good for the officer, that’s not good for the department.”

Schubert said he believes the training will build trust, which will help with hiring in the long run.

“I think if you build that trust in a community, I think you have more of an opportunity for people – who still even if there is that level of distrust – know that there’s hope and that they can be the change that they want to see,” he said.

Some black residents in Pittsburgh are hearing the message. Dre Gordon is a recent graduate from Nazareth Prep in Emsworth. He wants to become an officer and said part of the reason is because of the cases of black people dying at the hands of police.

“That was one of the things that motivated me to say ‘Yes, I want to be a police officer,’” he said. “Because I want to be in those situations because I feel like I could read those situations a little better.”

Gordon said many of his family and friends didn’t support his desire to become an officer, but after he explained why he wanted to become one, they understood. He wanted to become an officer after police visited his school. He said if they want hire more black officers, they should visit more urban schools and talk to students, like they did at his school.

“I don’t think they reach out to Pittsburgh Public Schools that well,” he said.

A representative from Pittsburgh Public Schools said while it doesn’t have the police department at career fairs, the district does have an emergency responders academy at Westinghouse High School. Representatives said the school is mostly black and the academy was put there because of its student demographic, in hopes of seeing more of its graduates hired in emergency responder roles.

The academy had its first graduating class this year, so it’s too soon to tell if the program will encourage more black recruits. But out of the seven students who completed the program, one student – a black female – plans on going to CCAC to study public safety. Another black female plans on going to the Pittsburgh Fire Academy. All of the program’s graduates were black.

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