Policing forum panelists quizzed on hiring practices


Pitt and Pittsburgh community members pressured local law enforcement leaders to explain how police policies and community relationships have evolved since the summer 2020 civil rights protests and the recent Capitol riots.

The “Policing in Pittsburgh: Where Are We Now?” virtual panel discussion on Feb. 4 featured legal and law enforcement experts who updated viewers on how Pittsburgh’s law enforcement training policies and relationships with the Black community have changed recently.

The event was sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy Program Evaluation and Research Unit, the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, and the Office of Health Sciences Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Panelists included David Harris, professor of law and chair of the Chancellor’s Public Safety Advisory Council; Eric Holmes, commander of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police; James Loftus, chief of Pitt Police Department; Holly A. Lamb, deputy chief of Pitt Police; and Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Independent Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board.

Abe Perez, associate program implementation specialist for the Program Evaluation and Research Unit in the School of Pharmacy, and Paula Davis, associate vice chancellor for the Office of Health Sciences Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, steered the conversation through topics surrounding implicit bias, systemic racism, community engagement and police recruitment, training and vetting policies.

Panel attendees were particularly interested in how, if at all, departments have changed their hiring practices after the Washington, D.C., riots on Jan. 6, where supporters of Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol seeking to interrupt the electoral vote count that would solidify President-elect Joe Biden’s win over Trump.

Federal investigations into the rioters have revealed that some had ties to law enforcement and white supremacist terror groups.

Loftus said the current process is “exhaustive.” He didn’t mention specific changes resulting from 2020 protests or the Capitol riots but said they have encouraged departments to take a closer look at the people they hire and use more situational assessment practices.

“You would hope that if somebody is truly radicalized, that would pop up pretty quickly and be easy to find,” Loftus said. “It’s our responsibility to turn those pages and dig as deeply as possible.”

Holmes agreed with Loftus and added that each state has different hiring practices for law enforcement and there are no national standards. He also didn’t mention any specific changes resulting from the civil rights protests or Jan. 6 riots but said that during the hiring process, applicants are required to go through extensive background checks and hundreds of hours of training.

“There’s so many layers to the process from polygraph tests, to drug and alcohol tests to visiting individuals’ neighborhoods where they resided to talk to family members and associates, etc., because we’re really trying to hire for character, as well as physical ability and knowledgeability …. We’re looking for guardian mindset, recognizing that at times we may need warriors, but the lion’s share of our work is guardian mindset.”

Both police chiefs added that officers continue to be assessed and screened for potentially problematic behavior after they are hired. However, they said that recruitment has been difficult recently because of a drop in the applicant pool and increased competition among the remaining candidates.

Community engagement, Harris said, is a necessary component that could help diversify potential hires.

“You have to have as many people of diverse backgrounds and demographics in your department as you can collect … because even though they become part of the culture of the department, it makes a difference to people in the community to see people who look like them enforcing the law,” Harris said. “They may not be different in terms of their training, but they’re different simply in terms of who they are. And they bring different experiences, that’s vitally important.”

Holmes said Pittsburgh police have worked especially hard on this, focusing on establishing trust and transparency through community engagement and collecting, examining and releasing data on police activity.

In the Zoom virtual chat, numerous attendees criticized the chiefs, saying more needs to be done to see how effective these methods have been in reducing racial bias and discrimination. Some referenced protest movements calling for defunding or abolishing police departments and asked if increasing funding for more training was the right solution to addressing these issues.

During the discussion, Harris said that for law enforcement to address systemic racism, police departments need to publicly examine and reckon with their histories of discrimination.

“It isn’t an easy thing for departments to do,” Harris said. “But they have to understand that patch, that uniform, that badge, that means something in Black and brown communities that we might not remember as white people. A good start is overall racial reconciliation, a willingness to have some pretty hard conversations about the history of things that have happened between the people you believe in your department, even if they happened quite a long time ago.”

To view the rest of the discussion, visit the Pitt Diversity YouTube channel.

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905. 


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