An upcoming town meeting featuring University of Pittsburgh Police leadership will be the latest step in an ongoing series of efforts to foster dialogue between the University’s public safety officials and students concerned about both nationwide and local issues relating to police misconduct, particularly toward Black Americans.
A key addition to that dialogue is a new forum for interaction. Pitt Police Chief James Loftus says he has been working with Pitt’s Student Government Board (SGB) on a new concept for Pitt—a Student Advisory Committee whose members will join him in a standing monthly meeting, along with Pitt Police command staff and other Pitt officials as needed.
“In these meetings, we’ll talk about any issues the students want to discuss,” said Loftus. “SGB can invite whomever they want to participate. We can invite speakers, or talk about policies and practices. Nothing will be off limits.”
The Pitt Police Town Hall will take place online from 6 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 15. It is open to members of the Pitt community as well as the wider area. Learn more information about the town hall.
Pitt officials have focused on engaging with students amid an atmosphere of growing concern. The nationwide protests this summer following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others highlighted growing support for measures to curtail police activities or even abolish police agencies entirely. Closer to home, Pitt’s Black Senate called on the University to block City of Pittsburgh police from operating on campus and to “disarm and defund” the Pitt Police.
While the University has not agreed to those steps, Loftus remains committed to improving police practices as well as enhancing dialogue. His force signed on to the “8 Can’t Wait” reforms—a national call for changes to all police departments. He says the national cry for better policing was “a catalyst for us to examine our own policies.”
In doing so, Loftus often uses the International Association of Chiefs of Police and its policy center as a resource.
“It allows you to look at what you do and to make sure it is in pace with what everyone expects,” he said.
The Pitt police department also regularly conducts implicit bias training and cultural awareness training for its officers and supports current bipartisan state legislation to create a disciplinary database for police officers.
Loftus said he favors the idea of a countywide citizen police review board that has been discussed by Pittsburgh and Allegheny County politicians and others this summer. He said he saw the value of such a panel during his 29 years as director and head of the homicide division at the Miami-Dade Police Department.
Adjusting to the pandemic
Among these changes, the chief is resurrecting his department’s Citizen Police Academy, an eight-week program designed to educate the public about law enforcement, though it will operate on a smaller scale due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The pandemic and all of its ramifications have put a damper on much of what Loftus said he and his squad value the most—close face-to-face contact with the people they serve.
The police were patrolling in March and April when the Oakland neighborhood was “a ghost town” with very few people around or cars on the road.
“It was a strange spring,” he said.
Now, with restrictions easing, he welcomes the opportunity for his officers to fan out into the neighborhood and chat with neighbors, students, business owners and people just passing through.
“It’s a contact business,” he said. “Think how many police come into contact with people. People in need, people asking for directions ... that’s how we do our business. And that’s how we should be graded, on every one of those contacts.”
The department’s Community Programs Unit comprises a sergeant and eight officers whose main job is to maintain these strong neighborhood ties. When needed, they also do “knock-and-talks”—visits to off-campus student apartments to remind its tenants not to gather in large groups or blast music too loudly.
It’s why Loftus says he’s looking forward to talking with members of the new Student Advisory Committee.
“It’s the essence of what we do,” he said.