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Pittsburgh to participate in federal program to improve police-community relations

The Justice Department picked Pittsburgh and five other cities as sites for a pilot program intended to test police-community relations strategies and policies, the agency said Thursday.

The agency chose the sites based on factors that include the applicants’ willingness to try ideas and their ability to collect data that would provide a scientific evaluation of methods.

U.S. Attorney David Hickton and Mayor Bill Peduto scheduled a news conference for Friday to discuss Pittsburgh’s role in the initiative.

Pittsburgh applied to become a pilot site, and police Chief Cameron McLay is excited about the opportunity, said Public Safety Department spokeswoman Sonya Toler.

“The chief has been talking about this for quite some time — as soon as he heard about it,” she said.

The other cities are Birmingham, Ala.; Fort Worth; Gary, Ind., Minneapolis; and Stockton, Calif.

The National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice is a $4.75 million, three-year partnership among the Justice Department, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Yale Law School, the Center for Policing Equity at UCLA and the Urban Institute.

Attorney General Eric Holder established the program in September as part of the government’s response to protests in Ferguson, Mo., and other communities showing the growing divide between police and the public.

Pittsburgh’s police department was the first in the country that the Justice Department sued under a 1994 federal law targeting departments with a “pattern or practice” of violating civil rights.

The Justice Department joined a lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union filed in 1996 on behalf of 66 people who claimed Pittsburgh police violated their civil rights.

The city entered into a consent decree in 1997 that kept it under federal scrutiny until 2001.

In more recent incidents, three white Pittsburgh police officers were accused in 2010 of beating and falsely arresting Jordan Miles, now 23, of Homewood, then a student at Pittsburgh’s Creative and Performing Arts high school. In a federal civil case last year, a jury awarded Miles more than $119,000 for the false arrest but found against his claim of excessive force.

In 2012, one of three Pittsburgh officers who detained Leon Ford, 21, during a traffic stop in Highland Park shot and paralyzed Ford as he attempted to drive away. Ford is suing the officers for unreasonable search and seizure, false arrest, false imprisonment and excessive force.

McLay this year established the Office of Professional Standards to audit officers’ activities and look for abuses, such as stopping and frisking people without probable cause.

The Justice Department’s community trust program meets a recommendation of the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force that President Obama set up in February 2014 to study how to improve opportunities and “expected life outcomes” for young minority men.

Brian Bowling is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-325-4301 or [email protected].


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