As part of the Race + Justice series, The Atlantic has convened roundtable dinners in nine cities with policymakers, community members and the news media. At each gathering, a senior Atlantic journalist guides an in-depth, on-the-record conversation on the state of justice in the local community.
At our most recent dinner, in Pittsburgh on June 13, the guests discussed how to improve the criminal justice system. While there was a wide range of viewpoints around the table, several themes emerged: the shift in public conversation in the year since the death of Antwon Rose II, the challenges of reform in a fractured political system, and the justice system’s relationship to equity in the community.
THE CHANGING PUBLIC CONVERSATION The Atlantic’s dinner in Pittsburgh took place days before the one-year anniversary of the killing of Antwon Rose Jr., a black, unarmed 17-year old, by an East Pittsburgh police officer. Attendees largely agreed that in the year since, the public had begun more openly discussing the racial disparities in the local criminal justice system. However, some advocates felt that the conversation had not moved far enough. Valerie Dixon, a victim’s advocate, shared that she has been engaged in similar conversations about race and criminal justice since her son was murdered 18 years ago, but that little had changed.
CHALLENGES OF REFORM Many attendees said that reform in Allegheny county is challenging, given its fractured political structure -- there are more than 100 independent police departments. Two participants, the activist Jasiri X and Olivia Bennet, who had been recently elected to the county council, made the case for a countywide civilian police review board, modeled after one in Pittsburgh, started in the 1990s after a police shooting. But Elizabeth Pittinger, the executive director of that review board, and Sam DeMarco, a county councilman, disagreed, arguing that even if a countywide review board were established, police departments would have to opt-in to its jurisdiction. Pittinger and Scott Schubert, the Pittsburgh police chief, suggested that the Pittsburgh Civilian Police Review Board and the Pittsburgh Police could lend training resources to smaller police departments. The County Executive, Rich Fitzgerald, noted that some smaller police departments were now considering consolidating to reduce liability, in the wake of Antwon Rose’s death.
EQUITY AND OPPORTUNITY Throughout the dinner, the region’s racial disparities in the region were a persistent theme. When the moderator, Ron Brownstein, asked the group if there was a common vision for the criminal justice system, Jasiri X responded that Pittsburgh was a tale of two cities, with residents of color experiencing dramatically different opportunities than their white counterparts. He noted that in the same year that Pittsburgh was rated “America’s most liveable city” by Forbes, it had the worst working-class poverty for black people in the country. The impact of economic and educational disparities on the criminal justice system in Allegheny was echoed by participants throughout the conversation.