Organization of black law enforcement executives meeting in Pittsburgh

| Sunday, July 28, 2013, 9:40 p.m.

The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives will begin an annual conference in Pittsburgh on the heels of a month marked by racially charged protests and gatherings.

Pittsburgh police Assistant Chief Maurita Bryant, president of the 2,500-member organization based in Alexandria, Va., says the community policing ideas that the group will discuss can quell such tension between police and minorities.

“NOBLE was one of the first law enforcement organizations to adopt community policing philosophy,” Bryant said. “Your interaction with the public should be more positive and service- oriented than anything else. You collaborate with the community more than you come in and tell people what to do.”

The 37th annual NOBLE Training Conference and Exhibition will take place Aug. 3-7 in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. Bryant said she expects at least 1,500 people to attend the conference. Only five city police officers are registered.

NOBLE represents mostly chiefs, assistant chiefs, sheriffs and others who are at least at the level of lieutenant, said Joseph Akers, the organization's interim executive director. The conference will address diversifying the supervisory ranks, he said.

The percentage of black officers at police departments nationwide increased from 9.3 percent to 11.9 percent between 1987 and 2007, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The data did not break out supervisory positions.

Officials from several local police departments reported having few or no racial minorities in their ranks.

“I would love to be able to hire more minorities, and actually I would love to hire more females as well,” said Beaver Falls police Chief Charles Jones Jr., the only black officer among 18 in his department.

Jones, a member of NOBLE, put part of the blame on the declining desirability of employment in law enforcement.

“I don't know if you'd call it a stigma. … Especially with young people, it's not cool to be a cop,” he said.

Of Beaver Falls' 8,987 residents in 2010, 75.3 percent were white and 19.3 percent were black, according to census data.

Some chiefs said they can attract minority applicants but can't hire them.

“The issue is they have to pass the test, they have to pass the physical, they have to pass the oral interview,” said Penn Hills Chief Howard Burton, whose department has two black officers, one Latino and one woman among its 49 officers. None of the four is in a supervisory position, he said.

Black officers made up 15 percent, or 128 members, of Pittsburgh's 873-member force, according to the department's 2012 annual report. By comparison, about 26 percent of the city's population is black.

Facing discrimination on the job can be difficult, Bryant said.

“Policing in black neighborhoods, for black officers, you don't want your peers to think you are overly defensive or siding with the community over an officer,” Bryant said. “That's a difficult place to be for some. But right is right, and wrong is wrong.”

In late June, members of the Community Empowerment Association gathered outside the Zone 5 station in Highland Park to protest the arrest of teacher Dennis Henderson, 38, of the North Side outside a meeting of the association.

Henderson, who is black, said the incident escalated when he questioned Officer Jonathan Gromek's driving. Gromek wrote in a criminal complaint that Henderson was angry and aggressive.

Prosecutors withdrew the charges against Henderson. The Office of Municipal Investigations is looking into the incident.

Pittsburgh police Cmdr. RaShall Brackney, who is black and grew up in Homewood in Zone 5, said community policing — making sure officers and community members know each other before a crisis erupts — helps both sides move beyond race.

“If everyone is on the same page with a common target, you don't have time for these little skirmishes,” Brackney said. “We're all on the same side.”

Tory N. Parrish and Margaret Harding are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Parrish can be reached at 412-380-5662 or Harding can be reached at 412-380-8519 or

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