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Race relations won't improve until policing tactics change, experts say

Jason Cato
| Saturday, July 9, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

Karlos Hill believed the United States hit a high for racial tensions last summer after a white gunman killed nine black people inside a church in Charleston, S.C.

The slayings at Emanuel A.M.E. Church were intended to spark a race riot, the alleged shooter claimed. It occurred a year after three high-profile cases of blacks — Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice — dying at the hands of white police officers in New York City, Ferguson, Mo., and Cleveland.

“Tensions were at an all-time high,” said Hill, a history professor at Texas Tech University who focuses on the African-American experience and racial violence.

He now acknowledges he was wrong — and that race relations could get worse before getting better.

“It's reaching a tipping point to which it might not return,” said Hill, whose book, “Beyond the Rope: The Impact of Lynching on Black Culture and Memory,” was released in paperback Friday.

Its release occurred hours after at least one black gunman used military precision to kill five white Dallas law enforcement officers — and wound seven more — at the end of a Black Lives Matter march.

The same week saw police kill two black men in as many days: On Tuesday, an officer shot Alton Sterling outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, La.; another officer, in a St. Paul, Minn., suburb, shot Philando Castile during a traffic stop.

Their deaths, captured on video and spread over social media, were the latest incidents that have sparked protests and riots across the country over several years. That includes Thursday night's protest in Dallas.

Underlying tensions in play

“Tensions may be running at the highest they have since the 1960s, when there were race riots and rebellions across America,” Hill said. “It's getting to the point that African Americans and others are retaliating against police or simply not cooperating at all with them.”

That is the direct result of decades of policing tactics that don't work, said James Nolan, a sociology professor at West Virginia University.

“Since Ferguson, the attention has been focused on police officers shooting or committing violence against African-American men. But these incidents are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Nolan, a former Wilmington, Del., police officer and unit chief in the FBI's National Hate Crime Data Collection Program. “Underlying tensions are not caused by these events. These are just flash points.”

Poverty, employment, education and affordable housing are some of the problems most talked about as underlying problems, some members of Pittsburgh's black community said.

“One of the strongest roots of violence is the inaccessibility to jobs and legal, entrepreneurial enterprises,” said Tim Stevens, CEO of the advocacy group Black Political Empowerment Project. “Until we pull out the roots of that inequality, we will always have the issues of race.”

Community-policing approach helps

For decades, police departments have focused on arrests and seizing drugs and guns instead of building relationships in their communities, Nolan said.

“The profession of policing has morphed into the profession of law enforcement,” he said.

Police should help build stronger neighborhoods to deter crime as ardently as they enforce the law, Nolan said.

“That is a different game than the game of law enforcement based on the number of arrests made,” he said. “And it's not just that the community has been victimized by this game, but police are victimized as well.”

Nationwide, rates of solved homicides and other violent crimes are down, Nolan said. People in black communities refuse to work with police, yet too many police departments refuse to change, he said: “It's a problem that just feeds on itself.”

When Pittsburgh police Chief Cameron McLay was hired from Madison, Wis., in 2014, city officials touted his community-policing background as a major factor in his hiring.

Tense times like these are “arguably when it's most important,” McLay said Friday while watching a demonstration Downtown.

A community-oriented approach can be a form of counterterrorism, he said.

“No one knows who doesn't belong in this peaceful protest more than the people who do (belong),” McLay said. “Police are terrible at recognizing terrorists. And stereotypes are a bad way to figure it out.”

When police are close and engaged with the community, particularly at events such as Friday's march, it can help officers realize who doesn't belong — or help community members feel comfortable enough to alert police to those who don't, McLay said.

“None of us want violence,” he said.

Mayor Bill Peduto called for a local “peace summit” this week.

Pittsburgh has bloody past

Pittsburgh's past has been pockmarked by incidents of racial tension, often involving police actions.

Black residents of the city, as in more than 100 cities nationwide, rioted in 1968 following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Days of disorder resulted in 100 businesses looted, 500 fires started, 1,000 arrests, 40 injuries and one death.

In 1995, actions by white police officers in and around Pittsburgh resulted in the deaths of two black men.

Four city officers fired more than 50 shots at Jerry Jackson, 44, of Hazelwood, killing him inside the Armstrong Tunnel.

That same year, five white suburban police officers were implicated in the suffocation death of unarmed motorist Jonny Gammage during a traffic stop in Carrick.

Charles Dixon, 43, of Altoona died in 2002 while being restrained by 13 police officers from Mt. Oliver and Pittsburgh.

In 2010, three Pittsburgh police officers severely injured teenager Jordan Miles in Homewood during an arrest in which they mistakenly thought he possessed a firearm.

In January, Port Authority police shot and killed Bruce Tyrone Kelly Jr. in Wilkinsburg after he fatally stabbed a police K-9 during a confrontation about drinking near the East Busway.

One officer in the Jackson shooting pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. He was the only officer to be criminally charged and convicted in any of those cases.

“You have all these instances in our collective memories, many of which we cannot get out of our minds,” Stevens said of Pittsburgh's black community. “We have all seen too many instances where black people end up dead in what appears to be a pretty simple interaction where the average person would walk out unarrested and alive.”

Rebuilding trust won't be easy

Hill, who described himself as a black, affluent college professor, said he fears leaving his house in Texas on the chance he gets pulled over by police and the situation goes awry.

“How do you think lower-class African Americans in Baltimore, Los Angeles or Washington, D.C., feel?” he asked.

As far as keeping racial tensions from worsening and boiling over in even more unimaginable ways, Hill said he is at a loss.

Measures like police body cameras and citizen review boards can help, he said.

Transparency and accountability are musts for rebuilding trust and improving relations, Hill said. So could severely reducing or eliminating instances of police killing unarmed black men, he said.

“The one thing I hate about what happened in Dallas is it completely undercut the conversation that was beginning to happen that ‘enough is enough.' It just undercut what I think could have been a moment of change,” Hill said.

“Now we're just going to see more of the same old, same old. Things will go on as they have been.”

Jason Cato is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or Staff writers Bob Bauder and Megan Guza contributed to this report.

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