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Editorial: Residents need clarity on Pittsburgh's police policy

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette logo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 1/30/2023 The Editorial Board / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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Anyone doubting the risks of unnecessary or excessive police traffic stops should watch the video, released Friday, of the beating death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols by five Memphis police officers. The officers — who, like Mr. Nichols, are Black — have been charged with second-degree murder. The incident has sparked protests nationwide, including a Justice for Tyre rally Saturday in East Liberty.

Mr. Nichols died on Jan. 10, three days after he was stopped by police, apparently for reckless driving. In the hospital, Mr. Nichols’ swollen and lacerated face was barely recognizable. Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis called the ”horrific circumstances” of Mr. Nichols’ death a professional failing.  

The deadly confrontation may also have resulted from a policy governing when to make traffic stops. Either way, it ought to serve as a cautionary tale to Pittsburgh Acting Chief Thomas Stangrecki, who said this month that police officers would resume traffic stops for minor violations. What happened in Memphis is one reason Pittsburgh City Council members overwhelmingly approved an ordinance banning such stops. Secondary stops aggravate the risks of confrontation between drivers and police, and they disproportionately affect Black drivers.

Pittsburgh and its police force also continue to grapple with an unusually high number of homicides — 71 last year — and should funnel as many resources as possible into fighting violent crime. That means avoiding stops for minor violations, such as a broken taillight or a single burned-out headlight, that can be reported without a stop. 

Mr. Stangrecki appeared to have overstepped his bounds in effectively disregarding the policy approved by City Council in late 2021. He and Mayor Ed Gainey, together, should clarify — quickly — what policy Pittsburgh police are following on traffic stops. 

In a tweet Saturday, Mr. Gainey said, “Black and brown people should never have to fear for their lives over a traffic stop. . . . Tyre should be alive today and his murder at the hands of law enforcement makes it clear that our work to change the culture of policing is critical for our city and our country.”

Mr. Gainey also indicated support for the council ordinance in a statement after Mr. Stangrecki issued his memo. The chief said in a radio interview he wanted to send a strong message to his officers that they can enforce the law. Mr. Gainey said he wanted Pittsburgh Police officers focused on the most violent offenders. “Secondary traffic stops for minor infractions are not and will never be part of that focus.”

All that is well and good, but statements from Mr. Stangrecki and the mayor, while not necessarily conflicting, still leave some uncertainty about what policy Pittsburgh police officers are following now. Especially after the tragic incident in Memphis, the mayor and police chief should assure residents they are on the same page, and that police officers are following city ordinance and not making unnecessary and dangerous traffic stops for minor violations.  


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