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Use of force by Pittsburgh police down, but still disproportionately affects blacks, report finds

A report commissioned by Pittsburgh police chief Cameron McLay has found that between 2010 and 2015, use of force by Pittsburgh police dropped overall. That’s the good news.

Less encouraging is the report’s finding that the remaining cases tended to disproportionately impact members of the city’s African American community.

According to WTAE-TV, the report released Thursday recommends “further study of several questions, including whether officers respond differently when arresting black people or are simply encountering more resistance from black suspects, and therefore need to use more force.”

The 41-page report can be viewed in its entirety here.

Among the highlights are those indicating that over the 6-year period, use of force occurred in less than one percent of all police calls for service, and that the total number of incidents involving force decreased by 16 percent.

But not only did that decrease not keep pace with a simultaneous decrease in the number of overall arrests, African American males in the city were still disproportionately involved when police force was used, the report found.

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“Over the past six years, there has been a higher-than-expected use of force rate for individuals who are black, even when controlling for the differences in arrest patterns by race,” the report notes.

It goes on to state that while black men and women comprise just 26 percent of the city’s population, they account for roughly 50 percent of arrestees and 57 percent of use of force subjects.

McLay argues that disparity decreased by as much as half between 2010 and 2015. But city officials say there’s still plenty of work to do.

Mayor Bill Peduto told WTAE-TV this week that the city is currently training its officers in how to avoid using force when possible.  

“They’re being trained right now,” Peduto told the station. “This will continue through the middle of November, and then provide them with the tools, the necessary weapons, to be able to de-escalate force.”

This after McLay’s report found that overall, 1-in-10 arrests involved the use of force in Pittsburgh between 2010 and 2015, while 34 percent of police incidents involving force resulted in injury to a suspect.

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The report also noted that most officers used force between “one and five times” in the six-year window, and that, in all, 120 officers said they had used force more than 25 times during that time.

The city has been tracking such incidents since entering into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice designed to lower instances of police brutality. The DOJ alleged “a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police that deprives persons of rights, privileges, and immunities secured and protected by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”

This as increased scrutiny has been placed on police departments and police tactics in communities of color and cities like Pittsburgh nationwide.

Locally, the findings of McLay’s report also come at a delicate time for the chief and his department.

After vowing to “challenge racism at work,” walking with Black Lives Matter protesters and his uniformed speech at the Democratic National Convention in July, McLay’s popularity with his officers has plummeted, culminating in a “no confidence” vote against him last month.

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McLay dismisses the resistance as an unavoidable side-effect of progress on complicated issues like race and policing.  

Meanwhile, the report also coincides with the upcoming trial of a former Pittsburgh police sergeant who is due in court on charges stemming from his violent arrest of a high school student encountered outside a Nov. 2015 football game at Heinz Field.

The incident was captured on camera and led to state and federal charges against the former sergeant, Stephen Matakovich, as well as a civil suit filed against him, the city and its police department by the student.

The suit alleges a pattern of excessive force employed by Pittsburgh police, and Matakovich, which it claims was overlooked or written off by administrators. 

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