31 December 2020

Forgotten History: Police Brutality in Pittsburgh's Hill District, 1925

In June 1925, ninety-five years ago, the head of Pittsburgh's City Council insisted its Public Safety director deal with consistent "police oppression" of black residents of the Hill District. This followed complaints of wrongful arrests, widespread police violence during “third degree” interrogations, and random fines. Specific incidents were described by Hill residents, including one case of wrongful arrest that resulted in a pregnant black Hill resident being forced to give birth at the station and denied medical care until her release the next morning. 
Wrote the Pittsburgh Post 95 years ago: “The substance of the complaint was that the police, by making arrests of many Negroes and treating some of them in a brutal way at the Center avenue station, have brought terror to the hearts of most Negroes, with a tendency to incite race hatred and possibly riot.” The Hill’s magistrate was also described as biased against black residents, but he was beyond the reach of Council.
Ninety-five years ago, Council President addressed Public Safety Director: "You have heard this, director, and we know it is true. Go up there and clean up: throw out those responsible and put in new. You can do it over night."
Ninety-five years ago, Public Safety Director responded "I'll investigate this."
Ninety-five years ago, Council President snapped: "We don't want you to investigate it--we don't want reports, but we want this handled as it should be handled. You are the head of the police department. You have heard what these people said, and we all know that they have not come here just to hear themselves talk."
So 95 years ago, within hours of that meeting, Pittsburgh's Superintendent of Police transferred every one of the 42 white policemen of the Central precinct to other parts of the city. He then swapped in all of the city's black officers, a total of about 20, to staff the Central precinct in the Hill at Centre and Devilliers.

Center Avenue at Dinwiddie Street, with Central Police Station (#2) at immediate right
January 1933
Pittsburgh City Photographers Collection, University of Pittsburgh

But in so doing, he also noted that the situation was “a lot of hokum, pure and simple.”
Pittsburgh Gazette Times, 26 June 1925 headline and excerpt
Politics was behind these allegations, he said, because his officers had refused to “take orders” from certain powerful city officials. Claiming he was only shifting policemen to prove a point, Pittsburgh's Police Superintendent asserted: “We will get the same results by the new officers at the station. There’s nothing to the brutality charges.” He further claimed that one of the complainants “worked in a politician’s office” and thus was presumably put up to testifying.
Case closed, 95 years ago. 
Headline, 25 June 1925
Pittsburgh Daily Post
Consider: to spite the complainants and City Council, the Police Superintendent left the Hill with half of its police force contingent. The remaining officers were men of color who were left to negotiate and reconcile dual identities as black men and "blue" public servants together, without administrative support. 
Putting black officers in charge of policing black neighborhoods became an accepted tactic, soon to be employed in a North Side vice neighborhood as well. The black community was essentially left to care for itself. 
Although the Pittsburgh Gazette Times headlined an editorial “A Good Start to End Police Abuses” the paper acknowledged that the Superintendent’s action was a tacit admission that “the charges made by respectable residents of the Hill against police methods were well founded.” The 1925 editorial also detailed systemic problems that sound all too familiar in 2020:
A complete change is in order. Not only that, but every policeman--probably there are not many on the Pittsburgh force--who has been guilty of brutality to prisoners should be ferreted out and suitably punished. In the present instance specific complaint was made of ill treatment of colored people. This element of the population is entitled to justice equal to that accorded all others. And that means every one unfortunate enough to fall into the hands of the police should be treated fairly and humanely. Too often another course has been pursued by some members of the police force. The indefensible “third degree” has been used very recently, according to reports. Policemen who deem it necessary to resort to this unlawful practice expose their incompetence as well as their inhumanity. Shifting them about may have the necessary disciplinary effect. If it does not there should be no hesitancy about getting rid of them.
Today, 95 years later, at least the Black community now has public support in protesting brutality. 
But...it's 95 years later. 
And we’re still talking about the same old same old. 
Example of policing black Pittsburgherss experienced 95 yrs ago, as described in letter-to-editor, Pittsburgh Press, 26 June 1925. 
Compiled from Pittsburgh newspapers, 25-28 June 1925.
A version of this story appeared on my Facebook page on 7 June 2020.

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