Police town hall focuses on transparency, accountability


Representatives from Pitt police, Pittsburgh police, and more held a town hall with members of the Pitt community on Oct. 15 and covered a lot of ground during the hour-and-a-half-long session.

The police town hall was recorded and can be found on YouTube.

Widespread protests this summer following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake at the hands of police have sparked conversations around the country about the role of police.

In a list of demands issues this summer, Pitt’s Black Senate called on the University to block city of Pittsburgh police from operating on campus and to “disarm and defund” the Pitt police.

While the University has not agreed to those steps, Pitt police Chief James Loftus told Pittwire he remains committed to improving police practices as well as enhancing dialogue. His force signed on to the “8 Can’t Wait” reforms — a national call for changes to all police departments on issues such as banning chokeholds and requiring de-escalations efforts. He said the national cry for better policing was “a catalyst for us to examine our own policies.”

Loftus also told Pittwire that he has been working with Pitt’s Student Government Board on a Student Advisory Committee whose members will join him in a standing monthly meeting, along with Pitt police command staff and other Pitt officials as needed.

“In these meetings, we’ll talk about any issues the students want to discuss,” Loftus said. “SGB can invite whomever they want to participate. We can invite speakers or talk about policies and practices. Nothing will be off limits.”

SGB President Eric Macadangdang told The Pitt News last week that the committee is in its early stages. “The intent of it is to provide some sort of oversight and some sort of accountability from a student perspective to ensure that, frequently, the Pitt police are checking in with students to get our feedback, our thoughts about matters and our perspective on how they are doing on campus,” he said.

Mikala Aleksandruk, a member of the Black Senate, said at the town hall that she’s been working with Pitt Police this summer to address some of the issues in the Black Senate’s action plan. Opening up a dialogue with police, like the Oct. 15 town hall, was one of those goals.

The event also featured: Chief Loftus and Deputy Chief Holly Lamb of Pitt police; Eric Holmes, Pittsburgh Police commander and chief of staff; Pitt Law professor David Harris, an expert on police behavior; and state Rep. Jake Wheatley, whose district covers part of Oakland. Two other students also participated: Jorden King, a graduate student in the School of Education and vice president of communications for the African Graduate and Professional Students Association, and Matthew Wilson, a junior communication major.

Here are 10 key takeaways from the town hall:

1. Accountability and transparency.

These are “two words that have come up constantly in our discussion with students and staff and faculty,” Loftus said. “We are being assessed, and we should be; we are being judged, and we should be, on every contact.” Holmes echoed those sentiments and said police departments need to look at “putting our policies online, being forthright whenever we have critical incidents and holding officers accountable whenever they do cross the line.”

2. Can others handle some jobs police do now?

“Is this a job for a person with handcuffs and a gun, or would we rather have a mental health person responding to this situation?” Harris said. This is a question police departments and cities around the country are grappling with now. There are models in other cities, he said, where mental health services are delivered by people with mental health training sometimes with the aid of a police officer. Also, how do we help homeless people. “Is it really a police problem? In too many places, this problem was loaded onto police, and they're not the ones with expertise in this. They certainly come when called and they do their best, but it's that spirit I think that's animating a lot of the discussion right now.” In a response to a chat question, Ted Fritz, vice chancellor for public safety and emergency management, said Pitt officers are trained in crisis Intervention and receive refresher training on mental health issues, de-escalation and how to get help for people who need it.

3. Data tracking is one of the cornerstones of transparency.

 “There's no reason that any city should not be keeping data, tracking it well and be able to give citizens answers about routine police encounters with citizens,” Harris said. He said universities are well positioned to track interactions between police and students and other citizens. Holmes said the city police include how many officers were disciplined, what the infractions were and what the resolution was in an annual report, but Aleksandruk pointed out that the University does not have a very updated database of officer wrongdoing.

4. Not everything can be transparent.

Both Loftus and Holmes cited cases where their hands were tied because of pending lawsuits or cases that involve multiple law enforcement agencies. Loftus said in the case of former Pitt Police officer Michael Rosfeld — who shot and killed an unarmed Black teenager, Antwon Rose II, after leaving the department — “There are a lot of things that we would love to be able to discuss … but we're prohibited because of some pending litigation. It’s one of those things where we're chomping at the bit to do that. We will have an opportunity to do that, hopefully sooner than later, and we're looking forward to it.”

5. Making sure the message gets shared.

How does the message about transparency and accountability trickle down to the frontline officers? Student Jorden King said it’s great to have conversations with the people who lead police departments, but they’re not the ones who end up “committing these criminal acts against other people in the term of protect and serve.” Another person in the online chat suggested that more “conversations like this happen but with more student perspectives and more officers.”

6. Getting officers out into the community has great benefits.

Student Matthew Wilson said, “I believe that it would be very beneficial to both parties for officers to patrol areas in which they're familiar, with people that they see daily.” He suggested that students would be more comfortable with police officers who they see all the time. Loftus agreed. “Our community program used to be one officer and now it's seven. The idea is let's get out, let's show our faces, let's do those things. That was a planned progression, so that when you don't have officers answering calls, we want them out making those personal contacts.”

7. Regular lines of communication

Police and the community need to have ways to interact that have nothing to do with a crisis. Loftus mentioned that he’s been working with student government and other groups to set up regular meetings between police and students.

8. Body camera oversight

Pitt Police supervisors conduct regular, random and targeted reviews of body camera footage. Depending on the video footage and all the circumstances, additional training and/or discipline will be imposed. Use of force is documented and reviewed by supervisors per policy, Fritz said in the chat.

9. Sharing information on officers

Chief Loftus favors a statewide database that would give police departments who are looking for someone to hire access to all disciplinary actions and terminations. Wheatley said that is something he might be able to push forward.

10. Allegheny County oversight committee

Pitt Police would welcome involvement from an Allegheny County oversight committee, which is currently being discussed. “If you want to just talk about transparency, you can; if you want to prove transparency, then you prove it in that setting,” Loftus said. Even now, there are other groups within the University that investigate the police department, as needed, “and we’re OK with that,” he said. Aleksandruk said she and others would like to know who the other groups are at Pitt that investigate the police and how often that’s done. Lamb also noted that anyone at the University can file a complaint about the police either through the department, through Human Resources or through the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 724-244-4042.


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