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Talks to target police-citizen communication in Western Pa.

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Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
 

After 18 months of private meetings, a panel of law enforcement and community leaders plans to start a series of public meetings to discuss ways to improve community-police relations.

“We have a great opportunity in Western Pennsylvania to make positive change,” U.S. Attorney David Hickton said on Tuesday.

The Community-Police Working Group plans to hold regional meetings during the winter in Pittsburgh, Wilkinsburg, McKees Rocks and the Mon Valley and then a communitywide meeting on April 11, Hickton said.

The times and locations have not been determined.

Hickton said he formed the group in response to protests surrounding the Jan. 12, 2010, arrest of then-high school honors student Jordan Miles of Homewood, but only because they were symptoms of a deeper lack of trust between the community and police.

Allegheny County Sheriff William Mullen said community-police relations started deteriorating in the mid-1990s when gangs began infiltrating neighborhoods.

Mullen, who was a city police lieutenant in charge of violent crime investigations in the early 1990s, said residents became less willing to talk with police as gangs started preaching an “anti-snitch” mentality and threatened to kill anyone who cooperated.

Hickton said his office has been aggressive in pursuing large-scale sweeps of gang members, but that hasn't eliminated the problem.

David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and a member of the group, said the April meeting won't be a forum for people to step up to a microphone and voice complaints.

The idea is for people to come together and present ideas for improving public safety and quality of life, he said.

“Only when the police and citizens work together can we make a better city,” said Harris, who studies police and community interactions.

The Rev. John Welch, another member of the group, said the point is for the community and police to listen to each other.

“Listening is the starting point,” he said. “We'll talk after we listen.”

Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper said the initiative has potential because it's opening lines of communication in a “non-crisis, non-emergency atmosphere.”

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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