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Police, public tensions decried in Pittsburgh neighborhoods

| Wednesday, July 3, 2013, 12:26 a.m.

Pittsburgh Councilman Ricky Burgess said Tuesday he's worried that relations between police and the city's poorest communities are at crisis level.

“On both sides you're going to see violence,” he said. “Both sides are armed. The disconnect that causes trauma on both sides is at the boiling point. We have to get both sides to change these attitudes.”

Burgess pointed to two “false narratives” causing problems: that officers believe people hate them and are complicit in criminal activity, while residents think officers hate them, disrespect them and are out to convict them of crimes.

“If we do not address this, this is a train wreck heading for our city,” Burgess said. “You're looking at a bomb ready to explode.”

Acting police Chief Regina McDonald did not return a message seeking comment. Police spokeswoman Diane Richard said the bureau may need to address training issues “so the level of respect is back on both sides.”

Burgess spoke a day after meeting privately with McDonald, Assistant Chief Maurita Bryant and community members to discuss the arrest of teacher Dennis Henderson, 38, of the North Side.

Officer Jonathan Gromek charged Henderson with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and blocking a public passage when the teacher confronted Gromek about the officer's driving outside a community meeting on June 26 in Homewood. Gromek handcuffed Henderson and a photojournalist, saying Henderson was aggressive and refused to stop shouting to draw a crowd.

Gromek remains on duty. The Office of Municipal Investigations is looking into what happened.

Henderson's preliminary hearing is scheduled for July 10.

At least 10 people talked about their experiences with racial profiling, what they perceive as police brutality and other interactions with law enforcement at an open forum held by the Community Empowerment Association Tuesday night.

Among those who spoke was Medina Bey, 21, who said that several hours earlier she watched city officers kick and punch her two cousins while they were handcuffed on North Homewood Avenue.

“I'm tired of Pittsburgh police messing with these black males,” Bey said. “For the police to beat them like that while they're restrained, I don't think that's fair.”

Zone 5 Cmdr. Timothy O'Connor said at about 1:45 p.m. officers stopped two young men on North Homewood Avenue to check their identification because police thought they may have been too young to purchase tobacco products a few moments earlier in a neighborhood store.

Bey identified her cousins as Will El, 21, and Beyshaud El, 18, both of Homewood. Each was charged with aggravated assault, court records show.

According to court documents, the two men attempted to punch an officer. Police used a Taser to subdue Beyshaud El.

On Monday, officials talked about having community members speak with police recruits at the training academy, Burgess said. Rashad Byrdsong, CEO of the Community Empowerment Association, said the city's training doesn't appear to work.

“They have to understand how to talk to people and not (use) authority and power to intimidate people,” Byrdsong said.

Police recruits attend an eight-hour cultural diversity class required by the Municipal Police Officers' Education & Training Commission, which provides curriculum. Lt. Larry Scirotto, who taught the last three recruit classes, said he brings in a person from a gay or lesbian support group to talk about experiences.

“There's absolutely a benefit to having a member of the affected community give their perspective,” Scirotto said. “I always say we're not here to teach tolerance, we're here to teach acceptance and understanding. It's no longer acceptable to just be tolerant.”

City officers attended an unbiased policing course in 2012 and mandated course on cultural diversity in 2007, Richard said.

Margaret Harding is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8519 or Staff writers Bob Bauder and Michael Hasch contributed to this report.

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