Carlos Thomas of Homewood, left, and Brandi Fisher of the Alliance for Police Acountability, talk about the qualities they want to see in a new police chief. Photo by Ann Belser.

The search for a new Chief of Police in Pittsburgh is underway, and the mayor’s Chief of Staff Jake Wheatley says the foundation of the process is obtaining input from residents while a search firm gathers resumes from prospective candidates.

As part of that process, residents and members of the city administration gathered in the gymnasium of the Community Empowerment Association in Homewood earlier this month to talk about the qualities they want to see in the next police chief. Police Chief Scott Schubert retired on July 1, and Tom Stangrecki is serving in the interim chief.

“We need you to tell us exactly what you believe we need in a police chief,” Mayor
Ed Gainey
said at the meeting.

The 70 people there — more than half of whom were from Homewood, East Hills and Larimer — had clear ideas about how they want the new chief to approach the job.

Gainey said some people who attended previous public meetings had said they wanted the new chief to be promoted from inside the Pittsburgh Police Department, others said they wanted someone from outside the city, and others stressed that they wanted the chief to be culturally sensitive to various groups in the city and to be bilingual.

“Today, I want to hear from Homewood,” Gainey said, noting that the next chief is going to
have to deal with the scourge of gun violence. “The reality is we took 776 guns off the street and we probably have another 2,500 on the street … And no one seems to know where these guns are coming from.”

Mayor Ed Gainey hands the microphone to David Jones, assistant director of community affairs for Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Safety, during the meeting in Homewood, as Duquesne Police Chief Eric Holmes looks on. Photo by Ann Belser.

Carlos Thomas of Homewood asked, “Does the police chief need to be a cop? Can he be a social worker?”

Brandi Fisher, the head of the Alliance for Police Accountability, who was sitting next to Thomas, answered: “Yes, the police chief needs to have experience in law enforcement.”

Thomas said his problem with “law enforcement” is “it assumes that law needs to be enforced without a predicating event.”

Fisher told him that he had come to the wrong event. “We are supposed to be answering what are the problems and priorities we want the chief to address.”

Thomas countered that one of the problems is that police officers are approaching people who are not causing any problems and searching their cars saying they are looking for guns.

Ayodeji Young, who runs Homewood Youth Sports, agreed. “With the new police chief coming in, how does he feel about enforcement within the Black community? That’s a great question. What tactics are they using?”

He added that some officers “come into the community to ‘police’ the community but they are not sensitive to the people that live in the community. So they are coming in from an adversarial point, from the door.”

Fisher disagreed. “Just like there’s two Pittsburghs, there’s two Black communities, I think it’s an intergenerational issue. The older people are asking them to come in. Their idea of safety is police safety.”

Chief of Staff Jake Wheatley explains the process of finding a new police chief. Photo by Ann Belser.

Thomas said he would like to see police officers who are less aggressive and just walk down the street and ask “how are you doing?”

Young added: “We need a younger, moderate police chief, that’s what we need. We don’t need an old hardened police veteran who’s been around for a lot of years and ‘knows the ways of the police.’ Those types of people tend to bring a ‘been there/done that’ attitude with them and they don’t bring a fresh perspective.”

After listening to the conversation, Ray Rivera of East Liberty said the city needs a police chief who will hold the rank and file accountable for misdeeds.

“They are the biggest gang in the world,” Rivera said. “We need a chief who will stand up for the people, not just his people.”

The Homewood meeting was one of five community meetings about the new chief. Pittsburgh City Council President Theresa Kail-Smith said she would like to see more meetings so that more people can add what they want to see.

Residents also can participate in a community survey online.

Ann Belser is the owner of Print, a newspaper covering Pittsburgh's East End communities. After receiving a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she moved to Squirrel Hill and was a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 20 years where she covered local communities, county government, courts and business.