For the past 50 years, Zinna Scott, 72, has lived in Homewood, one of the city’s highest crime-ridden neighborhoods, and a place where the residents historically have had a fraught relationship with the police.
Scott recalls the days when the cops would stroll down the streets, hitting their clubs on telephone poles in a demonstration of might, and speak disrespectfully to community members. Although she has never sold or used illicit drugs, she was pulled over in her Cutlass Supreme twice for minor traffic infractions and was told by the cops that the Cutlass is a “drug dealer’s car.”
But things are changing in Homewood, and throughout the rest of Zone 5, thanks to a concerted effort to improve community relations led by Jewish Pittsburgher, Jason Lando, who serves as commander of its police department. The zone covers Pittsburgh’s East End neighborhoods, including Larimer, Friendship, Garfield and Highland Park.
“I have seen a big difference in the police officers since Jason Lando has been the commander of Zone 5,” said Scott, who serves as the chair of the public safety committee of Zone 5. “The police officers have been more interactive with the community.”
The police “play basketball with the kids and have small group pizza parties,” she said. “I saw some policemen recently at the East Liberty Target, just standing inside and talking to anybody that would stop and talk to them. I’ve seen them stop their car and open their trunk to give a helmet to a kid riding a bike. That’s not something police officers did before.”
In the wake of the shooting of Antwon Rose by an East Pittsburgh police officer, the Greater Pittsburgh area is struggling with finding ways to improve policing. Initiatives have ranged from reviewing department policies to introducing legislation that would standardize and modernize police training for officers statewide.
But the officers of Zone 5 may be on to something. And, since the expansion of their community outreach program four years ago, their efforts seem to be paying off.
“We have really gone out of our way in the last four years to make an intentional effort to change things,” Lando explained. “And we’ve seen amazing results from that.”
Changes have included an email blast on community crime to keep residents informed about what’s going on in their neighborhood, an annual police open house that draws about 1,000 residents, a youth football partnership and a “Raising Readers” program that has officers reading books to kids at Willie T’s Barber Shop on Frankstown Avenue. The department’s community outreach staff has grown from one officer to seven.
And about a year ago, in accord with citywide policy, Zone 5 implemented its Neighborhood Resource Officers program, embedding an officer into its three “highest priority neighborhoods based on a number of factors that we took into consideration” — East Hills, Homewood and Lincoln-Lemington, said Lando. “When people have issues in those neighborhoods, now they have a go-to officer.”
He described incidents in the past “when we would pull a car over in Homewood, and before we could even get out of the car to contact the driver, people would approach the officers, accusing us, saying, ‘You stopped him for no reason.’ I’m not going to tell you we don’t ever experience that, but we see a lot more cooperation now than we ever had because we are working with the community groups to explain what our role is.”
We have really gone out of our way in the last four years to make an intentional effort to change things. And we’ve seen amazing results from that.
When citizens understand why police do the things they do, he said, “they’re a lot more compliant with us. So, because of that, we have seen complaints against our officers — in Zone 5 specifically — drop 40 percent since we started doing the outreach work in March 2015.”
The department also has made a concerted effort to reach out to youth.
“That is probably the subset of the community where you see the most animosity toward the police,” said Lando.
The youth engagement sessions are held in schools and churches and are structured to be informal. The officers wear street clothes and do not lecture the youth on proper behavior. Instead, they bring along pizza or sandwiches and tell the kids “to vent and to tell us why they don’t like the police,” Lando said.
“We don’t react,” he explained. “We select officers that are really good with this kind of thing. Then, after the kids get it out of their system, we do a little bit of explaining, like, this is why we might ask someone to get out of a car. This is why we might ask someone to show their hands. This is why we tell people don’t run. Then we move beyond the police stuff and just talk to kids — do you play any sports, what are your hobbies, tell us about your family.”
The meetings last about two hours and have, so far, uniformly led to “an attitude shift,” Lando said.
Often, the connections made during the meetings lead to a continued relationship, where a teen might recognize a particular officer answering a call — for example, to a house where a party is becoming too loud for neighbors — and offer compliance rather than defiance.
Community engagement also extends to everyday interactions, said Zone 5 Officer Paul Froehlich.
“I can remember on regular patrol, driving by a group of teen girls, and they were yelling, ‘F–k the police,’” he said. “So, instead of not saying anything and driving away, I parked the car, got out, and started talking to them, and asked them why they hate the police so much. We talked for 20 or 30 minutes and at the end of that they were like, ‘You’re the coolest cop I know.’ It changed their attitude. In 20 minutes, we went from ‘f–k the police’ to wanting to hang out with cops.”
The formula is “really basic stuff, but it takes education on both sides,” Lando said. “There are people that believe we are out to beat people up and harm them, and all we care about is taking people to jail. They don’t see any of the good stuff. And there are officers out there — and there is less and less as time goes on, because we are seeing a new generation of officers — but there are officers out there that will say, ‘Why do we have to go through all this community stuff?’ You’ve just got to find a way to bring everyone together.”
We were behind the eight ball. People were not friendly to us four years ago. We had more issues than other stations…That’s why we wanted to beef up the community involvement.
Lando has seen officers “that were previously jaded or skeptical about this high-level community outreach, and they come to an event and see people who previously hated police come to this event and just want to have fun with officers and get to know them. In that officer’s mind, he can see this actually works. I’ve seen the officers come around tremendously from four years ago.”
In the last few months, he added, all Pittsburgh police have undergone bias training.
“This is not about being racist or being sexist, or whatever,” he said. “It’s that everybody in the world — everyone — has some sort of implicit bias that they might not realize they have. And so, the purpose of the training is to help officers realize this is what my biases might be, and recognize them, and as you move about your day and you’re making decisions — sometimes decisions that are split-second critical decisions — be aware, so you are not making decisions based on your biases.”
In regard to police-involved shootings, he said, “our biggest concern when we train officers is that bias doesn’t manifest itself in an unnecessary, fatal encounter.”
All six police zones in Pittsburgh are doing community outreach “to a degree,” said Chris Togneri, a public information officer for the City of Pittsburgh’s Public Safety Department, but there has been an emphasis on outreach in Zone 5.
“We were behind the eight ball,” according to Lando. “People were not friendly to us four years ago. We had more issues than other stations. We have a lot of guns out here, we have a lot of violence. And so that creates an atmosphere where there is a higher likelihood of a negative encounter. That’s why we wanted to beef up the community involvement.”
Bringing the police and the rest of the community together can be furthered if the public refrains from jumping to conclusions about the police too quickly from media reports, which sometimes can be incomplete or misleading, according to Lando.
“When something does happen, we would really appreciate if the public could wait until the facts are in,” he said. “Because so much of the time, you see a 10-second blurb on the news of an incident that was captured on someone’s iPhone, and it doesn’t show any of the facts. And every time the news puts that on, it drives a wedge between the police and the community.” PJC
In a previous version of this story, Zinna Scott was misidentified as Zinna Smith. The Chronicle regrets the error.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.