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Pgh Police Hiring Deal Aims to Ease Friction with Minority Communities

PHOTO: The ACLU of Pennsylvania says a settlement in a class action suit it helped bring should mean the hiring of more minority police officers in Pittsburgh, ease somewhat strained relations in the city and prevent problems such as those seen recently in Baltimore. Picture courtesy of Wikipedia/VOA.
PHOTO: The ACLU of Pennsylvania says a settlement in a class action suit it helped bring should mean the hiring of more minority police officers in Pittsburgh, ease somewhat strained relations in the city and prevent problems such as those seen recently in Baltimore. Picture courtesy of Wikipedia/VOA.
May 8, 2015

HARRISBURG, Pa. - A new agreement on Pittsburgh police hiring is designed to mean more minority officers - and the Pennsylvania ACLU says that should ease the chance of future conflicts.

Plaintiffs and the city have settled a class action suit over charges that the selection process was biased against African-Americans. Vic Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said his organization brought the suit because only 4 percent of officers hired since 2001 have been African-American - for a city that's more than a quarter black.

Walczak said he hopes new hiring practices will help to ease long-strained relations between the police and black community.

"I don't think that it's a silver bullet," he said, "but there's no denying that when folks in minority communities see police officers that look like them, that maybe grew up there, that it's helpful."

In Foster vs. The City of Pittsburgh, the plaintiffs charged that even tiny issues were enough to knock out minority applicants and that white applicants - including those with family on the force - made it through with much worse problems on their records.

The city has not formally admitted wrongdoing, but Mayor Bill Peduto said the suit meant "a hard look in the mirror." He said that over time the new hiring practices should help build "a qualified, competent and diverse police force."

Walczak said there is reason to hope that could help change the culture at the police department.

"When white officers who perhaps have had minimal contact with people of color are partnered with an African-American or a Latino officer," he said, "it's helpful to them to break down biases that they may have."

Walczak said hiring is only one issue between police and minority communities. Nationally, he said, police also need to be held accountable when they violate the rights of minorities.

"Policing is a difficult and dangerous job, but they arrest people when civilians violate the law," he said. "When police officers take shortcuts through the Constitution, they have to be held accountable."

The police department defended its hiring practices as fair, but the city has agreed to pay about 350 denied applicants a total of nearly $1 million. The deal does not set a quota for minority hiring, and still has to be approved by a judge.

More information is online at aclupa.org.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - PA