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How Policing Is Shaping the Pittsburgh Mayoral Race

Incumbent Bill Peduto’s policing record is under scrutiny after protests last summer. He is facing what may be his most competitive race yet.

Mayor Bill PedutoPhoto illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.

Last summer, police clashed with protesters in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh, as they did in many cities after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

“My friends were tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets,” said Allegheny County Councilmember Bethany Hallam. “And this was all done by the city of Pittsburgh police, under the leadership of Mayor [Bill] Peduto.”

Peduto, who is hoping to win a third term in this year’s mayoral race, has faced two federal lawsuits over his and the city’s alleged failure to control the police department during protests last summer. In the approaching May 18 Democratic primary, he will face three challengers, one of whom—State Representative Ed Gainey—has won the endorsement of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. Peduto last year criticized the committee for endorsing a state House candidate who praised Trump, and did not seek its nomination this year.

“People wouldn’t be so desperate for change if everything was going well,” said Hallam, who has endorsed Gainey. “The need for change is because of a need, not just some new flavor of the week.”

One lawsuit, filed anonymously against Peduto and the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, alleges that police used excessive force against protesters. The lawsuit states that in one incident police blocked in more than 100 people, told them they had to disperse, and then fired tear gas and rubber bullets at them, even though officers and police vehicles were blocking their way out. Police unnecessarily escalated the protests to violence, the lawsuit alleges, and prevented EMTs from treating protesters.

Another suit, brought by Nicole Rulli and several other Pittsburgh residents, alleges that police used tear gas on Rulli’s 13-year-old son during the protests and blames Peduto for not properly controlling the police department. The suit was dismissed against Peduto individually but continues against the city and the police department and was referred to mediation earlier this month.

Peduto told The Appeal that he has made changes to the Pittsburgh Police Department to make sure the police action during the protest “never happens again.” He has created an Office of Community Health and Safety that is meant to help respond to and divert people in need of social services and mental health treatment away from the criminal legal system.

“The point is to make sure police officers aren’t the ones responding to these calls, but rather social workers, and professionals who have an expertise in this area,” Peduto said. “The Allegheny County Jail shouldn’t be our area’s largest mental health facility.”

Peduto said part of his administration’s “re-imagining policing” includes the implementation of mandatory de-escalation and implicit bias training, as well as the adoption of 8 Can’t Wait reforms, measures meant to restrict police use-of-force policies. In December, the Black Political Empowerment Project praised Peduto for agreeing to several concrete solutions aimed at increasing the recruitment of minority officers. 

However, amid widespread calls to defund the police, Peduto has said he actually wants to invest more money in the department. “Crime has decreased because our police budget has been increasing,” Peduto said during a town hall in October. “If we defund the police, what will be cut are the community officers, are the neighborhood officers, are the officers working in order to be engaged with the community.”

We’ve seen Black and brown people be brutalized and murdered at the hands of law enforcement. This is not a new issue.

Ed Gainey candidate for Pittsburgh mayor

Gainey, who would be the city’s first Black mayor, also favors community policing and distributing officers equally across the city. Concentrating them in certain communities leads to Black people being arrested at disproportionate rates, he said. 

“We’re going to spread the police throughout the city,” Gainey told The Appeal. “We are going to have them get out of these cars and walk this beat and get to know the people. If you don’t build the relationship, you can’t build trust.”

He has also called for more accountability in policing and told the Pittsburgh City Paper that officers who, in a Facebook group, made disparaging comments about the Black Lives Matter movement and colleagues sympathetic to it must be disciplined or fired.

Gainey agrees with some of the proposals Peduto has announced in theory but said Peduto’s response so far has been a lot of reports and working groups and very little change on the ground.

“We’ve got so many reports that we’ve done and they sit on the shelf,” Gainey said. “We say we’re going to implement X, Y and Z and still haven’t implemented anything. It’s just talk.”

After the killing of 17-year-old Antwon Rose by former East Pittsburgh Police Officer Michael Rosfeld in 2018, Gainey co-sponsored legislation to limit when police are allowed to use lethal force. 

“We’ve seen Black and brown people be brutalized and murdered at the hands of law enforcement,” Gainey said. “This is not a new issue. This is an issue we know has been going on since the beginning of time.”

Advocates have called on city leadership to fundamentally transform public safety and reduce reliance on police.

“There is no place for police in mental health response or traffic enforcement, and responsible political leadership must put an end to their enforcement of the drug war, persecution of sex workers, and order them to cease prosecuting nonviolent misdemeanors,” Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center, wrote in an email to The Appeal. 

In 2019, Pittsburgh police made more than 11,000 arrests, including more than 2,600 arrests for drug offenses. Despite accounting for less than 25 percent of the city’s general population, nearly 70 percent of arrests were of Black people.

As a state representative, Gainey has introduced legislation that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, make needle exchanges legal in the state, and expand Pennsylvania’s clean slate law—a law that automatically seals most records of misdemeanor convictions after 10 years—to include some nonviolent felonies.

For his part, Peduto signed a local ordinance decriminalizing possession of a small amount of marijuana in Pittsburgh in 2016 and has since said he supports full legalization.

Peduto and Gainey are considered the frontrunners in the race, Hallam told The Appeal, despite Tony Moreno securing 40 percent of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee’s endorsement vote. Moreno, a former police officer, has called for more officers on the street to direct traffic and said he disagrees with Peduto’s hesitance to police low-level offenses arising from homelessness or substance use issues. He has said officers who do things seen as “untasteful” should be taken out of “the area where they’re committing infractions” and has described the Pittsburgh Citizen Review Board, which investigates complaints against police, as a “complete waste of money.”

Despite his stance on reform, math tutor and ride-share driver Mike Thompson is largely seen as an outsider candidate. On his campaign website, Thompson calls for a 50 percent cut in the police budget, as well as disbanding and rebuilding the department with a focus on addressing root causes of crime like housing and access to mental health care.

Hallam said the competitiveness of this race speaks to the desire of people in Pittsburgh to see some real change. “Something new and different needs to be done because the lives of the people who are living in our city are not feeling like they are living in the ‘most livable’ city.”