Pittsburgh City Council: Defund the police!

Just Harvest submitted the following testimony today for the 3rd of three City Council public hearings on Police Reform and Budgeting.

July 28 update: Pittsburgh City Council passed five police reform bills today that advocates feel did not go far enough in truly changing policing in Pittsburgh in order to protect and invest in Black communities. Mayor Peduto is expected to sign the bills.

Just Harvest has worked for 30 years in Allegheny County to end hunger by addressing its root cause: economic injustice, which is often inseparable from systemic racism. As part of our work to address this, Just Harvest commits to standing with allies who are seeking to transform the U.S. incarceration system and policing from its historic use as a means to kill and control Black people, protestors, and the working class.

It’s often said that any budget is an expression of priorities and values. It also reveals the intelligence of its authors. If the city is going to persist in the false notion that the job of police is to address and prevent crime, then there are far better and smarter ways of doing so that would also help make our city a truly livable place for all. These entail real solutions to mass poverty, hunger, and inequity, which can give rise to crime, but are themselves far worse crimes in terms of their magnitude and their cost (both civic and monetary).

Given that Pittsburgh’s Gender Equity Commission found that the city is failing Black men and is the most unlivable for Black women, there should be a real urgency on the part of City Council to find solutions to the poverty, oppression, and poor life outcomes that constitute violent assaults on Pittsburgh’s Black families. The excessive dollars spent on policing should be reallocated to saving Black peoples’ lives. These investments would no doubt redound to the entire city’s benefit.

The proposed Stop the Violence Fund doesn’t provide meaningful cuts to the police funding and needs input from the communities it purports to protect. Pittsburgh city council members should be looking to redress many decades of inequitable resource allocation by diverting funds from policing to improving infrastructure in Black communities.

The city should reallocate capital and operating funds directly to these communities to enhance healthy food access, education, child care and afterschool programs, job training and development, and housing. These investments could be transformative, allowing communities long mired in poverty to enjoy the kind of health and economic outcomes that have thus far been reserved for affluent White Americans in the Pittsburgh area. The city could also use policing dollars to devise more humane and effective systems to address the many ills attendant with decades of poverty, racism, and trauma — the same ills that police are under-trained and ill-equipped to respond to and yet are increasingly called on to do so.

Protecting the vulnerable in order to ensure everyone’s human, constitutional, and civil rights is the supposed point of policing. Yet this task is beyond most police forces, including ours. Like other cities, Pittsburgh has been increasing its ranks of, typically, White enforcers, arming them with military grade weapons, and allowing and encouraging them to occupy and control public spaces and Black lives. This purposefully perpetuates the systemic racism that regularly tramples people’s rights and disproportionately consigns Black people and the indigent to a life of oppression and incarceration.

Just Harvest therefore supports the proposed ban on the acquisition of military equipment and the freeze on police hiring. But the Duty to Intervene bill doesn’t address all the other aspects of current policing culture and operations that will block this measure from accomplishing what it aims to.

It’s way past time for local government to do far better than it’s done, and weak gestures aren’t enough. The test of whether Pittsburgh’s leaders truly want to end systemic racism is where you put our dollars and how you’ll meaningfully change our police force.

The status quo is not working and it is not just. It is time to radically shift our spending priorities away from policing and towards the human needs and well-being of Black communities. Anything less than that is an endorsement of the status quo.

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