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Diana Nelson Jones’ Walkabout: Police officers meet, greet residents in informal gatherings

August 23, 2016

Residents from all parts of the North Side turned out for a recent session around a table at Arnold’s Tea in Deutschtown. The draw was a group of police officers and their new commander, Christopher Ragland, who took over Zone 1 on July 20.

It was one of a series of “meet and greets” that brings police officers around a table with people in their respective zones, and from the size of the crowd at Arnold’s, it was obvious why this is a great idea.

Arnold’s Tea is a hot spot for lunch and it got more crowded as 25 people gathered around the officers.

“This is the most attended tea or coffee event I’ve been to,” the commander said, taking in the crowd, which encircled the table sitting and standing. They included residents of Fineview, Troy Hill, Manchester, the Central North Side, Brighton Heights and Perry South. “A hand to all of you for coming out.”

A team of educators from the Propel Northside charter school included Principal Angela Taylor, who said, “We’re part of the community, and we wanted to reach out and welcome the new commander.”

People voiced concerns about traffic and bad driving, bad behavior, gunfire and drug dealing. A Manchester resident wanted a crime report of his neighborhood.

“We pull two weeds and there’s always people to take their place,” Cmdr. Ragland said, “but I am cautiously optimistic,” based on his memories of being a lieutenant in Zone 1 several years ago.

“I don’t remember seeing reports of major crime” since taking over the zone, he said in a phone call later, “although we have made some arrests for drugs.”

Cmdr. Ragland, who grew up on the North Side’s Observatory Hill, served in Zone 1 from 2001 to 2014. He was the commander of Zone 6 before returning to Zone 1.

“Having come back here, it’s good to get out and meet people I had not met in my earlier tour and to reconnect with individuals I had relationships with,” he said.

One of the first people to greet him through the door was Herman Watson, manager of a subsidized apartment complex in Allegheny Commons and president of the North Side Safety Council.

“We have been talking about how we can do our part, not just rely on the police,” he said. “We’ve been inviting people from subsidized housing and are trying to be more proactive.”

He said the safety council is pushing to get the Shot Spotter system installed around the North Side. Cmdr. Ragland confirmed that there is a commitment to do that but that the city has to find the funding. ShotSpotter has been installed in parts of Homewood.

It is a data and audio system in which three speakers are placed to triangulate sound so that what sounds like a gunshot can be accurately mapped and transmitted to the station and to squad cars.

Zone 5 Cmdr. Jason Lando, who also attended the session, said the system is so accurate that an officer at the desk and in the field can look at the computer, see a red dot on the map signifying the backyard of a specific house, “and when they arrive, the shell cases are lying there.”

“It has helped us in evidence recovery and it gets officers to a victim more quickly.”

I asked Cmdr. Ragland if sessions at cafes could influence better relationships between the police and people in the neighborhoods.

“It’s always good to be able to just be a person so they can see you as a person,” he said. “If you can individualize a person, put a name to a face, then you can learn each other’s struggles.”

Cmdr. Ragland has such an open, friendly face, you would never guess his profession if he weren’t wearing it. That’s not a diss on cops, but most of them tend to have a wary look. That’s understandable, but a hard countenance is a wall, and walls are what we need to tear down.

Reform of police training to reduce or eliminate built-in biases is a hot topic of discussion these days. Whether casual sessions of conversation and sharing — such as the one at Arnold’s Tea — can have a lasting impact in shifting biases on both sides of the table is worth finding out. It surely offers a chance for everyone to let down his guard, at least a little.

Post Gazette: Pittsburgh