The process of becoming a police officer is a long one that involves exams and evaluations — and in the city of Pittsburgh, the community is having a say in who is on the force.The image of a police officer brings different thoughts, feelings and reactions for different people. Like most things, it is often based on personal experiences or events with which someone is familiar.
“I had heard so many stories from my community,” community activist Adrienne Young said. “Until it happened to me, then I was able to understand how important it was to have officers that are fair, honest, sensitive.”
Young said she was treated unfairly by police because of her race, and the experience made her want to have a say in hiring police officers. She and other citizens recently sat with officers as city police candidates stood in front of them to be graded. The grades are a big part of who is hired on the force.
“I think it’s very relevant to have residents of the city of Pittsburgh help,” McLay said. “What human being would I most want showing up on my doorstep?”
McLay said he made the decision to have members of the community on that board.
“The citizens of the city of Pittsburgh have a right to have a voice in who the police are,” he said.
And the chief stands by his decision, despite the debate it has created.
“It’s vital that we have the most qualified and professional panel to hire the most qualified police officers that I’m going to be partners with on the street,” said Howard McQuillan, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 1.
McQuillan said citizens helping hire officers means bias can enter the process — and some officers believe it may have, pointing to the 2011 lawsuit filed by Young.
“What I was saying is I’m not going to allow you to disrespect, to violate my rights,” Young said.
Young claims false arrest and malicious prosecution in the lawsuit that she filed against the city and five police officers, saying she was detained as part of an ongoing campaign of police harassment. She also claimed that at least one of the officers harbored racial prejudice against African-Americans, something she said she wants to change, and part of that is why she was on the board.
“What we did is we took a very special look at the African-Americans that did apply, and we really wanted to make sure that they were qualified,” Young said.
And that is what worries some Pittsburgh police officers who took their fears to the FOP.
“I personally don’t know Adrienne Young. And personally, I probably don’t have an issue with Adrienne Young on a one-on-one basis,” McQuillan said. “But I can see where people are concerned.”
Pittsburgh’s Action News 4 took that concern to Mayor Bill Peduto for his response.
“One of the things is to be unbiased, and to have someone on the board who has sued the city and several police officers — do you think that is unbiased?” reporter Marcie Cipriani asked.
“To be able to choose these candidates, I think there is a large enough pool that you could probably avoid that if the situation did occur,” Peduto said. “I don’t know if that was the choice of the chief, feeling it was unbiased, or if it was something that was overlooked in that selection.”
McLay said lawsuits were not part of the criteria.
“There had been no discussion about lawsuits. We looked at criminal convictions. So would this information have resulted in a different decision? I’m not sure. I’d have to look at it more carefully. I’d have to study it,” McLay said. “But the fact of the matter is that wasn’t part of the selection criteria. We didn’t know about it beforehand. So might there have been ways we would have handled it differently? Potentially.”
The lawsuit is just one issue that has stirred emotion. For the FOP, it’s about citizens deciding who becomes a Pittsburgh police officer.
“I don’t think we would be opposed to having people be a part of the process,” McQuillan said. “But whenever you have someone who can potentially impact someone’s future — and not purposely, but maybe mistakenly, because they’re not familiar with police work …”
Tim Stevens, chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project, said it is the citizens of Pittsburgh — particularly those who have encountered police — who need to have a say in who wears the uniform.
“The people who are impacted by police are not just people who have legal backgrounds — please,” Stevens said. “Most of the people who are impacted in a negative sense by police interactions have no legal background, quite often are the poorest people, quite often are the people who have the least ability to defend themselves.”
He added, “The average citizen who is not schooled in law may be schooled in the streets.”
As for officers’ concern about potential bias and whether Young’s lawsuit — which she lost — should have excluded her, McLay said, “I’m not interested in engaging in a critique and whether or not she should have been there. That’s not fair to her, so I’m really not interested in that conversation.”
But Young is interested in it — to defend her role and her desire to make the police force more diverse.
“If we don’t have officers that are reasonable and are not just out here to be punitive, to see the black race just as someone to arrest and to harangue, then we cannot have people that protect and serve us,” she said.
McLay said that he will be looking at how each person on the oral board panel graded each candidate to make sure there was no bias before he determines how to move forward.