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Police Reform in Spotlight at Penn State Summit

Third installment of this year’s “Crossing Bridges” included county’s president judge

By Paul Wintruba
The Tube City Almanac
February 14, 2022
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

The Pittsburgh Community Task Force for Police Reform’s report on changes to policing was the focus of the Crossing Bridges summit on Feb. 10.

This was the third installment of the program put on by Penn State Greater Allegheny in McKeesport.

The most recent installment of the summit, “Voices from the Judicial System and Police,” follows two previous online discussions. The first took place between activists and scholars in October 2021 directly following the release of the PCTFPR report, and the second focused on victims of police violence in November 2021.

The Feb. 10 panel was moderated by Sandra Trappen, assistant professor of administrative justice. Panelists included Kim Berkeley Clark, Allegheny County president judge; Iris Richardson, director of diversity, equality and inclusion for Penn State University Public Safety; and David A. Harris, law professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

The PCTFPR report focuses on eight core elements: eliminating racial disparities; officer wellness; reimagining policing; recruitment-training-education-hiring; relations with the Pittsburgh Fraternal Order of Police; transparency and accountability; use of force changes needed within the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police policy; and the use of tear gas, “flash-bang” devices and other less than lethal methods of crowd control.

In addition to policy and community engagement, a key point of discussion was recognizing signs of trauma and providing police departments with alternatives to traditional tactics.

“Words matter,” said Clark. “I tell everyone every day what you say matters.”

Clark, who works primarily with juvenile court cases, has been working with the state to create a “trauma-informed courtroom” and place a greater focus on juvenile diversion to keep kids out of detention centers.

The idea behind diversion is simply that incarceration is not the answer to every crime, and neither is traditional prosecution. Police responding to cases involving people experiencing homelessness or addiction need to be provided with the tools to get these people into the hands of social services designed to help them.

Since the release of the PCTFPR report, Pittsburgh Bureau of Police have partnered with Allegheny Health Network to create teams that partner a medical worker, social worker, mental health practitioner and a police officer to respond to calls where traditional policing methods do not seem to be applicable.

Harris, who is a member of the Police Reform Task Force, believes that programs like this can be examples to follow for neighboring municipalities.

“We need police for some things, no doubt,” Harris said. “We can think of better actors and agencies that handle a lot of the problems faced by police now. Police are not social workers, and they don’t have to be.”

Penn State University is one organization that has been taking the concept of redefining policing to heart. Richardson said she has been working with her colleagues and student activism groups to implement policies that focus on accountability and transparency.

In addition to their involvement in the 30 by 30 campaign — an initiative to increase female employment to 30 percent by 2030 in the public safety contingent — Richardson said her department has also begun polling students annually to seek feedback on the department’s perception.

While no formal report has been issued, Richardson said engagement with the poll was higher since the implementation of these new policies.

As a microcosm of the communities in which they exist, Penn State’s campus may be able to serve as a proving ground for practices that can then be adopted by local municipalities, Richardson said.

While each of the three discussions in the Crossing Bridges summit focused on different aspects of police reform, each reached the same three conclusions: Citizens, especially those from marginalized communities, want transparency, community engagement and kindness from their policing force.

To this end, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police has put together a webpage that acts as a progress report, listing each item from the task force report as well as a projected timeline for implementation.

“Even if they don’t live here, they [police] work here, they are part of the community,” said Leon Ford, who became an activist and motivational speaker after being partially paralyzed by a police shooting. Ford was a panelist at November’s discussion.

“Relationships can accomplish things that policy cannot,” he said.

Editor’s note: To view the archived discussions, visit the Penn State Greater Allegheny website. The Pittsburgh Community Task Force for Police Reform report can be found online at the City of Pittsburgh website. 

The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police has responded to the report.

Paul Wintruba is a freelance photographer and writer based in Penn Hills. His website is at www.paulwintrubaphotography.com. He can be reached at pwintrubastudio@gmail.com.

Originally published February 14, 2022.

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