Students, Pittsburgh, PA Police Work to Build Relationships, Raise Awareness

From The Tribune-Review by Margaret Harding, May 22, 2014

A boy who said there was no way he wanted to be on a team with a Pittsburgh police officer was one of the first to run gleefully toward the city’s bomb squad display in West Park in the North Side on Thursday.

Pittsburgh Police Cmdr. Rashall Brackney (left) and teacher Dennis Henderson (center) joke with seventh-grader Isaiah Wilson (right) while sorting out groups of eighth-graders from Manchester Academic Charter School during a team-building exercise in West Park in the North Side. Henderson, a teacher at the school in Manchester who was arrested by Pittsburgh police in Homewood last year, arranged the exercise with police in Zone 1 to try to improve frayed police-community relations. — James Knox | Tribune-Review

That change in attitude is exactly what teacher Dennis Henderson said he wanted to accomplish by having seven officers and about 90 students from Manchester Academic Charter work together in a geocaching scavenger hunt in the park.

He said he noticed students expressing fear and anxiety about police officers because they saw news stories about the federal civil rights lawsuit a Homewood man filed against three city officers, and that compounded what they knew of Henderson’s own case.

“We found there was a need to have something where the kids see that the officers are part of the community,” Henderson said. “For me, this is about the kids. I’m an adult. They don’t have all of the experiences, and they need to see that officers are people, too. It really has nothing to do with my case.”

Henderson, who is black, was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and blocking a public sidewalk after a tussle with Officer Jonathan Gromek, who is white, outside a community meeting in Homewood in June.

Prosecutors withdrew the charges against Henderson, and he filed a lawsuit against Gromek accusing him of unlawful retaliation, false arrest and imprisonment, using excessive force, pursuing prosecution without probable cause and stopping and detaining Henderson on the basis of his race.

The case was referred to mediation. Gromek’s attorney could not be reached.

“You try to show them that we’re people too,” said Officer John Brennan, who volunteered to lead a group through the park.

Henderson worked with Zone 1 Cmdr. RaShall Brackney, a former member of the school’s board of directors, to set up the event with a mix of on- and off-duty officers. Henderson challenged students to learn about the officers who led each group through the park.

“We want to make sure what they took away from this is that not every encounter with law enforcement is a negative one,” Brackney said. “In fact, it can be positive.”

Officer Jason Lutz said he fielded typical questions from kids — “Did you ever shoot anybody?” — and a fascination with his police belt.

“I think it gives the kids a good opportunity to meet us and feel comfortable around police instead of feeling afraid,” Lutz said.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: