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Blackjacks off the table for Pittsburgh police

| Friday, Nov. 21, 2014

Pittsburgh police acting Chief Cameron McLay said Thursday that in his 35 years of police work, he hadn't seen active-duty officers carry the 6-inch, leather-wrapped metal weapons known as blackjacks.

Then he arrived in Pittsburgh.

“I saw more than I liked,” said McLay, who this week banned the weapon effective immediately. “The image, the professionalism of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police is not well-served by our officers carrying a device like the blackjack.”

The blackjacks are leather-wrapped lead, originally designed to hit someone in the head to knock the person unconscious without cutting him, McLay said.

“That has long been a very, very inappropriate use-of-force tactic,” he said.

Pittsburgh officers carried blackjacks for decades, said former police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr., who considered banning them when he headed the bureau from 1996 to 2006.

“I was issued one in 1977, and every officer that came on decades before me carried one,” McNeilly said. He ordered officers to undergo a four-hour training program to use the blackjacks.

Pittsburgh police officers were taught to use them as they would other impact weapons such as the expandable baton or straight baton, primarily for hitting muscle groups such as in the arms or legs.

Department statistics suggest officers rarely use blackjacks. A use-of-force report for 2013 said officers used either blackjacks or batons — the report lumps them together — in just 1.54 percent of 2,727 times in which they employed some type of force.

“Before I started, I looked at the policy manual and approved weaponry,” McLay said. “I noticed blackjacks were still there, and that was an issue of concern before I even walked in the door.”

McLay said he couldn't estimate how many city officers carry blackjacks, but said he noticed them when he visited the police stations.

“Because of the appearance of the tool, and because the device was originally designed to strike the head ... I consider the tool to be an anachronism for law enforcement,” McLay said. “A modern police agency does not need to be carrying a blackjack.”

Thomas Aveni, a retired officer and executive director of the Police Policy Studies Council, said he thought use of blackjacks by police departments was a “dead topic.”

“Most agencies phased those out two decades ago,” Aveni said. “The problem with them was they encouraged strikes to the head. They didn't give you much advantage in reach the way a regular baton would.”

Pittsburgh officers carry batons, Tasers and pepper spray as nonlethal weapon options.

“The only attraction left for the blackjack is the emotional appeal for it,” McLay said. “They've had it for a very, very long time. The other tools we have are better and safer.”

Margaret Harding is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8519 or mharding@tribweb.com.

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