Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The East Pittsburgh police department that is responsible for killing the unarmed teenager Antwon Rose, Jr. is one of more than a hundred police departments across metro Pittsburgh—and that’s a problem.
The police shooting and killing of 17-year-old Antwon Rose, Jr. in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, brings back into focus the problem of policing in the suburbs of large cities—a troubling phenom that was magnified when 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed in the small municipality of Ferguson outside of St. Louis, Missouri. Like Brown, Rose Jr. was unarmed when he was shot and killed by East Pittsburgh police. Both were African Americans. Like the Ferguson-St. Louis proximity, East Pittsburgh is a small borough that sits just a few miles on the outskirts of the city of Pittsburgh. The entire borough takes up less than a square mile, and had a population of just over 2,000 as of the 2000 Census. Nevertheless, it has its own mayor, city council, and police department—a staff of nine, including its chief of police, according to the East Pittsburgh website.
The police officer who killed Rose, Michael Rosefeld, had just been sworn in to the East Pittsburgh force less than two hours before he and another police officer pulled over a car that Rose was riding in. The car was suspected in a shooting that had occurred minutes before less than a mile away in the neighboring small municipality of North Braddock (population 4,740)—not to be confused with the neighboring small municipality of Braddock (population 2,118), both of which also have their own tiny police departments. In fact, most of the 130 boroughs, towns, and small cities that make up Allegheny County have their own police departments, many with staffs of fewer than a dozen people.
The teenager was running away from the police when Rosefeld fired at him. Some of this was captured on a Facebook video that has since gone viral. Questions abound about whether it is within legal bounds for a police officer to use deadly force against a fleeing suspect. But too often lately we’ve seen police from suburban departments shoot first and let these questions get asked later.
It’s not often clear what the rationale is for these small municipalities to have their own city administrations and law enforcement agencies. There’s no obvious border or demographic profile that distinguishes East Pittsburgh from either of the neighboring Braddocks. They are all former steel towns languishing in financial distress. The city where I live is about a mile away from them and suffers from its own multi-municipality complex. My apartment division covers a quarter-mile stretch that crosses through three municipalities: Munhall, Homestead, and West Homestead—each of which has their own police department. Add in the fact that the Allegheny County police department also covers these municipalities and you can see how jurisdiction can become easily confusing.
And it’s not evident that having so many overlapping police forces covering miniature swaths of land is a good idea. One thing that was learned from Ferguson was that the network of 58 different police departments representing the 90 municipalities, large and small, around St. Louis County can be detrimental to public safety. The St. Louis-based nonprofit research center Better Together found “significant differences in police training, accreditation, and licensure across the 60 area police departments,” and also disparities among the equipment and resources used across the departments. Such fragmented policing “undermines effective policing” by creating inefficient law enforcement and “unprofessional” outcomes, such as the the “muni-shuffle” phenom where police are laid off or fired for disciplinary reasons in one police agency only to get swiftly hired by another one, according to a report from the Police Executive Research Forum.
If having multiple police departments makes for inefficient and unprofessional work across St. Louis County, imagine what it means for Allegheny County, which has almost twice as many police departments. Micro-department intrusions add up to macro-resentment of police in general.
East Pittsburgh Mayor Louis J. Payne told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that the officer who killed Rose, Michael Rosefeld, had worked for three other police departments within the county in the past eight years. (UPDATE: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Rosefeld left his job as a University of Pittsburgh police officer in January after discrepencies in a criminal complaint he wrote led to charges being withdrawn from three men he arrested in December.) This raises major flags, says Christopher Burbank, vice president of strategic partnerships for the Center for Policing Equity, and also former police chief for the Salt Lake City police department.
“I obviously don’t know this officer, but you have to ask the question: Why did he leave all those places?” says Burbank. “This is a problem nationwide, officers who go from agency to agency to agency, and we need to stop this cycle. We need the removal of certification. This is a challenge I had in Utah: If you lied in any shape or form [while performing as a police officer], I didn’t care, I would fire you. But our state would not decertify officers for lying except under very specific circumstances. So they’d just get a job with another agency, and that’s ridiculous.”
This is the kind of activity that causes the public to distrust the police, especially in small towns and cities where people “rarely differentiate between one agency and another,” says Burbank.
Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board of Pittsburgh, says she hears from people who live in outlying municipalities who think they live Pittsburgh—something that can easily happen when you live in a place called “East Pittsburgh.” Having an uber-fragmented police network like Allegheny County’s makes that work difficult, though.
With those cases, her organization tries to assist them by putting them in touch with a city council member or police chief for the local government where they actually reside. But most other jurisidictions don’t have a similar civilian oversight mechanism to provide external accountability.
“In Pennsylvania, there are only two of those, just us and Philadelphia,” says Pittinger.
Metro Pittsburgh’s 100-plus police department ecosystem has a long history with this resentment. In 1995, an African-American man named Jonny Gammage was killed by police from the Pittsburgh suburb of Brentwood, which sparked public outcry and protests. In 2003, an African-American man, Charles Dixon, was strangled to death by suburban Mt. Oliver police. A 2003 article from Pittsburgh City Paper cited 16 deadly force incidents involving police that were being investigated dating to 1998—nine of them came from suburban police departments. The case of Antwon Rose, Jr. in East Pittsburgh is just the latest incarnation.
Add these to the chronicle of high-profile killings of African-Americans at the hands of suburban police in recent years elsewhere around the country:
- Michael Brown, killed by Ferguson police, outside of St. Louis, Missouri
- Walter Scott, killed by police in North Charleston, a small municipality outside of Charleston, South Carolina
- Philando Castille, killed by an officer from the St. Anthony police department outside of St. Paul, Minnesota
- Sandra Bland, found dead by apparent suicide after she was pulled over by a state trooper and detained in a Waller County jail outside of Houston, Texas
- Korryn Gaines, killed by Baltimore County police in her Randallstown home outside of Baltimore, Maryland
In St. Louis County, the scattershot police jurisdictions across the region have led to “confusion and distrust among residents, who often feel targeted and harassed by police officers and the municipal court system,” according to a report from the Police Executive Research Forum.
A skim through the police shooting databases created by media outlets such as The Washington Post and The Guardian reveal many more police shootings that happened in the outskirts of large metropolitan areas. The Mapping Police Violence project found that 27 percent of U.S. police killings that happened between January 2013 and December 2017 came from officers of police departments of the 100 largest U.S. cities. Which means the bulk of police killings happen in America’s smaller cities.
But it’s difficult to say how much of this is a problem in suburban municipalities because most of those small police departments do not keep records of police-involved shootings and killings. The Center for Policing Equity collects data from several police departments of various sizes. But each of those departments have different standards for trainings, discipline protocols, procurement policies, use-of-force guidelines, and so on, so it makes comparative analysis difficult.
“There are about 17,000 police agencies and the majority of the population is policed by just a few very large police departments,” says Burbank. “The rest of policing is done on a much smaller scale. But what we know is that they have the same issues and problems, the same disparities, and the same problematic outcomes—the incarceration of people of color is disproportionate in both small and large cities.”
The Forward Through Ferguson report calls for a consolidation of law enforcement agencies along “contiguous jurisdictions,” meaning places with common borders and demographics in St. Louis County. The Police Executive Research Forum also calls for “strategic consolidations” among jurisdictions with common characteristics. If ever there were places to test the controversial call for abolishing entire police departments, these small departments would be it. Such streamlining would make it easier to set more consistent standards among police rank and file, and also make it easier to expand civilian oversight—a prospect that is virtually impossible across a broad multi-municipal area like Allegheny County. There is currently an effort afoot to develop a countywide civilian oversight board across metro Pittsburgh, but the landscape presents many many hurdles for that.
“These [local police departments] are unique single entities, each of them autonomous, and they can have their police structured and operated in whatever way they locally choose to, and Allegheny County has no control over them, so this wouldn’t be easy,” says Pittinger. “Police are certified by the state, but only if employed by a certified local police agency, which means their accountability is to their city employer. The chief of police in East Pittsburgh will only answer to the East Pittsburgh mayor, not the county executive, so you’d have to give the county some authority over all of those localities. The state could pass a statute that requires every certified police department to have civilian oversight and tie that to receiving state funding, but is that practical? I don’t know.”
Perhaps Rose’s fate would be different had he been apprehended by a Pittsburgh city police officer (perhaps not). We do know that Pittsburgh was the first major city police department to enter into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice after federal investigators discovered a pattern and practice of police misconduct among the force in the 1990s. That led to improved training, more resources, and tighter oversight of operations and activities within the Pittsburgh police ranks. As for the police working outside of the city, in places like East Pittsburgh, they were all left to their own devices.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that 58 police departments represent 60 municipalities in St. Louis County. There are 90 municipalities.