On Friday, Mayor Bill Peduto took action to change how the Pittsburgh Police will handle protests around the city.
“When I raised my hand and took the oath of office in 2014, my guiding principle was to reform and change Pittsburgh government across all departments and offices, including the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police,” said Mayor Peduto in a statement. “I have repeatedly watched interactions between police and protesters that escalated to uses of less-lethal weapons, arrest methods and other actions that I do not support, and which run counter to our common principles.”
The mayor called for changes, including:
- Assigning a new Incident Commander to oversee protests, with new seats at command posts for Civil Affairs and Public Safety Community Engagement staff who will make sure that responses to protest activity are balanced with the goals of improving police-community relations and protecting First Amendment rights.
- Assigning a new oversight and command structure for the Police Special Response Teams (SRTs); the units trained in crowd control methods will not be used as the primary units to respond to incidents and protests, and only dispatched during narrowly defined situations when absolutely necessary. The use of SRT units at these events will be subject to clear, written guidelines that city officials are working on now, and that will be made public once they are finalized.
- These guidelines will formalize that jump-out arrests of protesters by non-uniformed police in unmarked vehicles — which the Mayor ordered to be halted on Monday, August 24 — are not permitted. In a related move, all police units will be barred from wearing military-style camouflage uniforms at such events as well.
Peduto also acted in the defense of media. Throughout recent and almost daily protests around the city, protesters have blocked and sometimes assaulted members of the local media.
“Police Chief Scott Schubert and I are reinforcing to all officers the need to protect media covering these events. I fully support the unabridged First Amendment rights of the press, and I want them to freely monitor activity at protests on behalf of the public. Their presence and coverage are the backbone of transparency, accountability and democracy, and I apologize if that was hindered in any way on Wednesday.”
In addition, the Mayor seeks to increase the role of the Pittsburgh Police Community Engagement office “to expand their oversight and decision making of the Civil Affairs Unit, police recruitment and other proactive programs the Bureau operates that are critical to reestablishing trust, confidence and positive relationships between police and all they protect and serve,” he said.
The statement is the Mayor’s response to recent events including the protest on August 15. Heavily armed, non-uniformed police officers in an unmarked van engaged in a jump-out arrest during a protest in Oakland and charged 25-year-old Matthew Cartier with failure to disperse, disorderly conduct and obstructing highways and other public passages.
On August 19, protesters marched to the Mayor’s home in Point Breeze protesting what they called Peduto’s alleged lack of accountability toward the police and also demanding justice for the lives of Black Pittsburghers who have been killed during confrontations with police.
At one point Peduto, who was joined by City Council officials Erika Strassburger and Bruce Kraus, started a conversation with protest leaders around 8 p.m. on Wednesday night, answering questions about police brutality and the response to the East Liberty protest on June 1.
Around 10 p.m. other protesters drowned out the Mayor with sirens and chants and Peduto retreated into his Hastings St. home as Pittsburgh Police arrived in riot gear ordering the protesters to disperse quickly. Those who remained were led to Mellon Park where some chaos ensued and police used pepper spray.
Some protesters say the Mayor’s statement outlining changes is not enough. This past Sunday, protesters returned to the Mayor’s house to continue to take a stand against him — some calling for his resignation — and of the Pittsburgh Police.
“Pittsburgh police have been unacceptable,” said Jennifer Kennedy, a Point Breeze resident and one of the protest organizers. “We have a long way to go until Pittsburgh becomes a livable city. We can’t just make changes at the top and call it a day.”
The protest included Chalk for Change, a group that called for Pittsburghers to return to Hastings St. to rewrite Black Lives Matter messages with different colors of chalk. Kennedy said they decided to take action in their neighborhood after the previous demonstrations didn’t have the outcome they desired, which was a promise for legislative change.