Pittsburgh, Pa., residents propose fixes to mounting conerns about police-community relations
Hilltop residents work with police on common goals
June 28, 2010
Hilltop residents gathered the community in dialogues and brainstormed action ideas in response to growing concerns about tensions between the police and community. Action ideas include developing a police youth action center, holding events to unite police officers and citizens, and identifying mediators to serve as liaisons between teens and police.
In a dank church gymnasium, under a twirling disco ball, a handful of Hilltop residents stepped one by one to a microphone to air their proposed fixes to mounting concerns about police-community relations.
Foster trust between youth and police.
Sponsor block parties and neighborhood cleanups.
Build and strengthen block watches.
"People will feel safer in the neighborhood and be able to sit on their porches," said Adam Hoffman, 16, of Carrick. "You don't want to walk outside and be afraid of the people around you."
Their ideas, unrolled at a Wednesday meeting of the Hilltop Alliance's Safe Streets Action Forum, were the result of five weeks of organized discussions among groups of residents and police officers. They outlined problems, brainstormed solutions and, on this rainy night inside St. Pius Byzantine Catholic Church on Brownsville Road, plotted ways to set their plans in motion.
The approach is called "everyday democracy" and aims to turn dialogue about community problems into action to solve them. More than 600 communities nationwide have tried the strategy, and neighborhood leaders in the Hilltop hope such civic participation will be the key to a better relationship with police.
"It's a tested model," said Sara Bennett of the Hilltop Alliance. "It's worked in a lot of other places, and we are hoping to adapt it here."
Ms. Bennett approached police in Zone 3, the Allentown station, with her idea last year.
"She said she really wanted to make a difference," Community Relations Officer Christine Luffey said. Police Chief Nate Harper asked community relations officers from each of the city's six stations to join in the effort so that each discussion group would include police.
Last month, about 60 residents split up and began discussing problems, which ranged from quality of life concerns to such larger issues as dwindling opportunities for youth and distrust and misconceptions of police. Most agreed that crime fighting is best accomplished through cooperation and that "safety depends on everyone, not just police," Officer Luffey said.
They met once a week for five weeks before unveiling their proposals. Among them: develop a "police youth action center," which would offer educational and recreational activities including homework help and drug and gang resistance programs; hold "take back the night" events that would unite police and citizens; and tap "mediators" from the neighborhood who would serve as liaisons between troubled teens and police.
"Our police department needs to reflect the community in which we serve," Lt. Shirley Sloan, acting commander of the Zone 3 station, told the crowd. "A mediator is someone who could relate to both police and youth. If they can get trust from our side and the youth, they can later on help us with recruiting."
Participants then voted on their favorite ideas by marking them with stickers on poster boards tacked to a wall.
"Give yourselves a pat on the back," Ms. Bennett told participants before they disbanded to vote. "What you guys have done is remarkable."
Allentown business owner Cathy Moir liked the idea of mediators and said she already had one man in mind for the task. Problems with drugs and prostitution around her business prompted her involvement in the Hilltop Alliance, and she had hope for its latest plan.
Organizers hope theirs will be a model for other communities in different police zones. They also hope more people will join in their existing effort.
"The thing that impresses me is that they're trying," Officer Luffey said. "Usually something good comes out when you put forth an effort."
When the groups had settled on their goal of improving and expanding the Hilltop's block watches, they broke into a task force that sought ways to put their plans in action. On a poster in black marker, they enumerated "what success will look like."
"It's by sticking with it that we'll meet these goals," Ms. Bennett said.http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10179/1068778-53.stm#ixzz0sBENIkTq
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