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November 23, 2016

Police official discusses race, gender bias on the job

Maurita Bryant/photo by Tom Albany

Maurita Bryant/photo by Tom Albany

“Race is something many here in Pittsburgh have a difficult time talking about,” Allegheny County Police Assistant Superintendent Maurita Bryant told the crowd at her Nov. 8 talk on race and gender in the police, part of the 14th annual lecture series by the Center for Race and Social Problems in the School of Social Work.

And police are no different, she said.

Racial bias exists in the police department as much as anywhere, Bryant said, although it is less blatant today. Gender bias may be even stronger.

Bryant experienced this first-hand during 38 years with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, beginning in 1977. She retired as assistant chief of the city’s investigations unit and started her county job in June.

“Being a black female in the police force in 1977 did not come without its challenges,” she said. The police department was under a recent court order to increase the hiring of minorities and women, and this created a stigma for Bryant and other black women who were newly part of the force, she said: “We were considered the least qualified of all our peers [and] only advanced to fill a quota.”

The court order did its job, however: By 1998, 25 percent of the 1,100 officers were women, the highest percentage of any law enforcement agency in the U.S. at the time and more than twice the average percentage, she reported — up from 1 percent in 1975. There also was a much higher percentage of women in command positions.

“It did not mean that women were well-regarded in the department,” Bryant added.

Indeed, she said, too often she had to work amid denigrating speech and photo spreads of naked women from Playboy left open on police desks.

“Despite the issues on the job, I was determined not to quit,” she said. With the help of female mentors, “I developed my sense of purpose.”

She vowed to make sure people in poorer neighborhoods received equal police services, and sought more education for herself, as well as more supervisory positions.

“You have to be at the table to influence decision-making,” she noted.

“Then the court order was lifted,” Bryant said.

Today, women make up only 16 percent of the force.


In general, Bryant added, people “think of diversity as just black and white. Diversity is having people with different thoughts at the table. You have all white males at the table? You’re going to think like all white males.

“When black females came on the job for the first time, there was no connection” to the way of thinking among white male police officers who dominated the force, she said. They may not have hated the new black and female recruits, she allowed, but “they just couldn’t connect to them … so there was a period of adjustment.”

She counseled that minorities and women entering previously white- or male-dominated professions “have to earn your respect through relationships with people … and those racial barriers break down after that. When we don’t talk to each other,” it is impossible to create mutual understanding, she added.


Bryant, 64, had to overcome a number of obstacles before undertaking her police career.

Born and raised in Homewood, she was separated from her mother at an early age and stayed with relatives who physically abused her, she said. Removed from that home by a local child protection agency, she was taken in by her grandmother, then reunited with her mother at age 8. She married at 16, and had her first daughter the next year, and another daughter the following year. Then her husband came back from Vietnam a heroin addict, she said.

“He gave a new meaning to the word ‘domestic violence,’” she said; the only reason their marriage lasted 10 years was because “he was constantly in and out of jails,” she said — and she thought she could fix him and their relationship. She labeled herself naïve, with low self-esteem.

“Those are challenges that most police officers cannot understand or find empathy for women,” she noted.

Seeking to move from her early work cleaning office buildings, “my driving force was strictly survival, raising my daughters and moving out of the projects,” she said.

Once with the police, there were many black female officers who, alongside her, “weathered the storms while living on the glass cliff” — working in police leadership positions associated with a greater risk of public criticism and failure. The late Gwen Elliott, the first black female sergeant and commander on the force, was most influential, Bryant said. She called Elliott “a true champion for children,” citing the Moms and Cops program that Elliott founded and Bryant later headed; the formation of a police domestic violence unit; and the creation of the nonprofit Gwen’s Girls.

“It’s such a shame that, while she was on the police force, that’s not where she received the most accolades and recognition,” Bryant said.

Bryant also praised the work of Ophelia “Cookie” Coleman, now chief of police for Wilkinsburg. “She advanced that fairness, the equity, for minorities officers,” Bryant said. Bryant recalled their work together at the West End police station in the late 1970s. “That was a section of town where they weren’t used to African Americans, especially women, in a blue uniform,” Bryant said. She remembered answering one 911 call, only to be greeted at the white caller’s front door with “What do you want? I called the police.”

Another great example of black female leadership in the Pittsburgh police was RaShall Brackney, the first female supervisor for the city’s special deployment unit, now heading law enforcement at George Washington University. “She was smarter than a lot of her male counterparts, and they resented it,” Bryant said. “But they had to respect her work.”

Bryant also called Commander Lavonnie Bickerstaff, today in charge of the major crimes unit, “a unique crime fighter. She came up with new ideas, how to interact with the community, how to get the detectives to do a better job.”


Today, less than six months into her new job helping to lead the county police, Bryant discovered that county police weren’t spending enough time interacting with the community, since they most often patrolled large county facilities such as the county airport.

Put in charge of the county’s uniformed service division, she instituted its first street patrol, in Wilmerding.

She also found herself one of only six blacks on the county force, so she intends to increase recruitment of minorities.

She expects that the number of minorities on the city police force will increase as well. Former city police chief Cameron McLay, who resigned recently, had already “changed a lot of things for the better in recruitment, so I think their numbers will go up,” she said.

In the past, police recruiters would hold roundtables to assess new candidates and would discard applicants who owed large amounts of their student loans as “not reliable,” Bryant reported. “And I’m sitting there thinking, I owe my student loan. Some people, they come from an area where they’ve had no challenges … they had no dramas, so they look at things through that lens.”

“That roundtable process — Chief McLay stopped that, because it was too subjective,” she added.

She also said that police recruit testing was not able to accurately assess recruits’ qualifications for the job, nor was it geared to the younger generation of recruits being sought. “I used to hate when they said, ‘We can’t find any qualified blacks,’” Bryant said. “You ain’t looking.”

Police shootings in the news have made her extra-conscious of the impact on police. “If it happens in California, you would think it had happened here,” Bryant remarked. “Our police get the stigma.” Yet McLay, before leaving, had already “greatly” improved police relations with black neighborhoods, she said. “I’m hopeful this interim chief, Scott Schubert, who is a good guy, will continue a lot of those initiatives with the community.”

It still bothers her when black police officers badmouth the current state of bias among police, she said.
“When you want things to change, you’ve got to sit at the table. You step up and join the force and you be the one to change the force.”

—Marty Levine 

Filed under: Feature,Volume 49 Issue 7

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