Brenda Tate
Brenda Tate. Photo by Tony Norman.

Retired Pittsburgh Police Officer Brenda Tate turned what could have been the worst years of her life into an opportunity for growth. The woman who would be photographed shaking hands with the Dalai Lama and President Bill Clinton and standing between a smiling then-Senator Barack Obama and the late Franco Harris at a gala she was tasked with protecting, was born into one of the most challenging environments imaginable.

Coming of age in the Hill District in the 1950s and early 1960s, Tate was already the victim of multiple rapes by men who were “friends” of her mother. Adding to the trauma, she witnessed the near fatal stabbing of her father outside a local bar during midday along with dozens of onlookers. Meanwhile, her home was never a reliable refuge from the drugs, alcoholism and domestic abuse that permeated so much of the neighborhood.

These days, Tate, who turns 74 in March, has begun looking back on her life with both appreciation and a critical eye at the things that made her who she ultimately became.

“When I retired April 1st, 2014 when I turned 65, I was ready to go,” Tate says of her four decades on the force. During that time, she worked in several prestigious units, including Witness Protection, Dignitary Protection and Sex Crimes/Sexual Assault. She was a highly decorated officer who had a high profile in the Black community and was considered a cop ordinary people could trust and relate to.

Brenda Tate had navigated a life of contradictions with a combination of religious faith, consistent drug and alcohol counseling, supportive colleagues on the Pittsburgh Police force and sheer good luck. The fact that her first police uniform is archived at the Senator John Heinz History Center and not buried with her in a grave is a minor miracle.

Brenda Tate
Brenda Tate as a fresh recruit with the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh in 1974. Photo courtesy of Brenda Tate.

These days, Tate is looking for a writer who would be willing to collaborate with her in crafting an autobiography that captures her career as a troubled, but effective, female police officer during a time when hostility against women on the job was at its zenith. She’s not interested in minimizing the harm she did to herself as a high-functioning alcoholic when she was hired as the first Black female officer for the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh in 1974.

When Tate became a Pittsburgh Police officer a few years after her stint with the Housing Authority, her professional achievements had already begun to paper over a life that still featured domestic abuse in which she was the victim and drug and alcohol abuse she continued to indulge in to blunt her emotional pain.

When she began walking a beat in the Hill District where she was born and raised, Tate was expected to potentially arrest folks she might have gotten drunk or high with the night before. It was an impossible dilemma for a drug and alcohol addicted cop that added to her stress levels. During her time as a police officer, she divorced her first husband and lost her second to a heart attack. Every day became a struggle.

Yet somehow, despite her many hardships, Tate became an effective and empathetic cop who the community genuinely appreciated. Now she’s interested in exploring these stories in a book about her life and times.

Since retiring from the Pittsburgh Police, Tate, who lives with her 100-year-old aunt, has started her own security firm and has become more active in the ministries of Ebenezer Baptist Church in the Hill. She also runs a senior jazz program at nursing homes in underserved communities in Pittsburgh.

During a recent interview, Tate’s phone buzzed with calls from people eager to reach her. Whether walking a beat or enjoying the fruits of much-deserved retirement, Brenda Tate, who has been sober and drug free for decades, will always be someone the folks in her community can call. 

Dear readers: I hope you’re enjoying the change of pace in my weekly column in NEXTpittsburgh as much as I am. I’m also co-hosting a new podcast with my friend and fellow journalist Natalie Bencivenga. In Other News is now streaming!

Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.

Award-winning writer Tony Norman tells the untold stories of Pittsburgh’s Black communities in a weekly column for NEXT. The longtime columnist and editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and an adjunct journalism professor at Chatham University. He is the current chair of the International Free Expression Project.