Christmas Day, 2014
Dear Chief McLay,
Belated congratulations on your new role here in our community. As you will quickly find out, Pittsburgh, PA is a very unique place, full of both wonderful characteristics and noteworthy challenges. It is truly a place worth living in, working for, and improving upon as we head into 2015 and beyond together.
I commend you on your willingness to write an open letter to us within “the community” to address race relations between police departments and communities of color throughout the nation as well as here in our hometown of Pittsburgh. The necessary of your letter and the nature of these tenuous times churned my spirit to reply to your letter immediately as a member of “the community”, even on this blessed holiday of Christmas. Perhaps it is most appropriate that on a day of celebration of the gifts of life and redemption, this conversation sprouts forth a new hope.
It is unfortunate that this latest invitation for dialogue and partnership comes on the heels of the horrific and deplorable killings of two officers in New York and anonymous threats against officers in several cities including Pittsburgh. Yet, over the history of America, incidents and patterns of violence and violations against African-Americans are initially and responsively met with calls for patience and calm, while reactions to inexcusable acts of violence against selective others due to social unrest and imbalances are met with calls to action. One could view the transition of Mr. Derbish from in-uniform duty to plain clothes duty (akin to the tragic situation involving Pittsburgh’s Jordan Miles and Philadelphia’s Darrin Manning – incidents where police misconduct was alleged against law-abiding African-American young men by plain-clothes officers) to desk duty in such a vein; (his removal from “the community” and public interaction coming after multiple Zone 5 protests and the ghastly shooting of members of the NYPD.) Despite this repetitive pattern re-emerging – engagement as a result of violence against a particular portion of our community after years of overlooking the lingering injustice hampering us all – a genuine step in the right direction is a welcomed step towards overarching peace nonetheless.
I also thank you for your understanding that, indeed, we face a “…crisis of confidence…” between Black citizens of this nation (particularly those living in urban America) and police forces (and, therein, the criminal justice system overall). After die-ins and protests in places such as downtown Pittsburgh and Ross Park Mall here in our region along with the circumstances playing out in Mall of America, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Ferguson (among others), it is good that the nation is facing collectively what Black America has dealt with for generations: a jaundiced view of the American ethos “…liberty and justice for all…” and that “…all men are created equal…” – resounding sentiments that we are all taught as children but we regularly do not apply or experience as we come of age in this country.
Chief McLay, the re-focus on accountability is respectable yet incomplete. I caution us all against the comfort of civic conversation when the courage for community enhancement is required. Demonstrating “…to our communities of color that we hear and understand the pain…” may be devoid of meaning if a kinetic understanding of the structural, cultural, and functional problems that keep us at this point of general tension and mistrust lacks 360-degree progress.
You ask several questions in your open letter. They include:
“(W)hat are we going to do, Pittsburgh? Police work is often not pretty.
“Officers must arrest violators. Violators often resist, sometimes violently.
“When the next ugly incident happens, will we be willing to withhold judgment and control our emotions long enough to give each other the benefit of the doubt? Are we going to work together toward reconciliation? Are we going to work on listening to one another with the intention of compassionate understanding?”
Yet, your questions – regrettably – permeate the problems with community perceptions that must be addressed, affected, and aligned with the true spirit of the aforementioned American ethos if we are to succeed as one big team.
To be fair, African-Americans in Pittsburgh – much like the rest of Pittsburgh and our region – appreciate and respect our police bureau, especially as we concur that “…police work is often not pretty.”
As well, we agree: “…officers must arrest violators.” However, we also believe that violators maintain their constitutional rights – notably that of “innocent until proven guilty.” Sadly, our appreciation and respect are challenged when these constitutional rights are bruised during police interactions. They become bruised when police abuse of suspects (citizens that are presumed innocent until proven guilty) occur in places such as Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Chicago, and elsewhere – often with no “…punitive reasons…” or actions towards reassignment or firings afterward (such as the case here in Pittsburgh) despite life-altering breaches of training, procedures, or laws.
We agree: “…Violators often resist, sometimes violently…” However, we wonder why Eric Frein, Dominic Adesanya, and Omar Gonzales can be taken alive to have their days in court – enjoying their presumptions of “innocent until proven guilty” – while a Black man “armed” with a toy gun (in a toy section of Wal-mart) and a 12-year-old Black youth – both living in an “open carry” state – were cut down by officers that acted as “…judge, jury, and executioner…” The pain felt by “the community” runs deeper with the reality that often times, these incidents include officers that have prior questionable incidents in their backgrounds. Disturbingly, our appreciation and respect are challenged when these inconsistencies between incidents involving fellow citizens highlight dual and disjointed tracks of police-public interactions and expectations in our United States.
We agree: we must be willing to “… withhold judgment…control our emotions…give each other the benefit of the doubt… work together toward reconciliation…listening to one another with the intention of compassionate understanding.” We must all be “…extremely concerned about the potential for similar violence and for the safety of our officers…”
However, we must also focus on results that are tangible, holistic and historic – not merely reactionary, targeted, and cursory.
Withholding judgment must include “the community” processing all of the facts on a case-by-case basis just as it must include Pittsburgh police and others within law enforcement pushing aside racial profiling to deal with members of the community individually – thus discontinuing indignities such as the one that I (again) endured as a law-abiding citizen in the city just this month. Withholding judgment against all cops cannot be met with the continuation or condoning of “stop-and-frisk”, “driving while Black”, and “jump-out squads” tactics and philosophies.
Controlling our emotions must include eradicating vitriolic rhetoric against all police officers just as it must erode the knee-jerk public stances to protect officers involved in police misconduct or the indiscriminate rejection of protests denouncing said behavior.
Working together towards reconciliation must include making sure that all citizens are appropriately safe during all interactions between police and the public – most notably “the community” – not just citizens that wear a badge.
Being “…extremely concerned about the potential for similar violence…” must hold the same resonance and importance for citizens’ safety within “the community” as it does “…for the safety of our officers” – especially when execution-style murders of brave police officers by suicidal gunmen are rarer than the once-every-28-hours tragedies that befall communities of color in America in recent years from Charlotte to Milwaukee.
Understandably, our appreciation and respect become challenged when we collectively put too much pressure on “the community” to change its ways without calling for and overseeing appropriate, holistic, and long-term actions of accountability by those with the capabilities to enforce laws, ensure ethics, and commit traumatic and life-ending acts within the blink of an eye.
Compassionate understanding comes from the acknowledgment that pain forecasts an issue that must be remedied immediately and properly so that discomfort can subside and dysfunction can cease. Sir, it is of the utmost importance that the discomfort currently felt throughout America (particularly within police bureaus such as ours here in Pittsburgh) is remedied alongside the underlying dysfunction simultaneously lest the pain continue and the problems remain. Sadly, the issues between police and “the community” that are highlighted during times of police misconduct and controversial interactions with us are symptomatic of the greater societal conundrum regarding the modern-day disjointedness, disparities, and frustrations based on race in America. These are hardly issues that exclusively burden police forces. We all as Americans own them. Yet, the burdens involved in police-community interactions uniquely entail irreversible consequences that occur in lightning-quick moments – thus prompting immediate remedy.
Rest assured, Chief McLay, that your job and those of the thousands of officers that serve throughout America are not thankless at all. We commend you all for your service and pray for your safety daily. The core values of “Accountability, Integrity and Respect” are honorable, especially as long the duty to protect and serve all American citizens and Pittsburgh residents – including those in “the community” – remains paramount.
The truth is: we have the ability to shift an oft-ignored national paradigm between Black America and police forces, including the inconsistent one between affected Pittsburghers and the police force in our hometown. My faith as a native of the region, as a father of 3 African-American sons, and as a Believer prompt me to ensure that we, indeed, all choose wisely for better days ahead. Through ongoing appropriate protests, representative engagements of stakeholders, new relationships of trust, and necessary progress, things must improve for citizens on both sides of the badge for Pittsburgh to truly be a most livable city. I believe that they will.
Happy Holidays to you and yours as well as to those throughout our Pittsburgh community.
– Lenny McAllister, Pittsburgh-born community advocate and urban activist, current Pittsburgh boomerang and resident