Being Arrested in Pittsburgh in the Long 1970s

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 4:10 PM
Monroe Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Elaine Frantz, Kent State University
In Pittsburgh, the police department came out of the late 1960s feeling embattled and misunderstood. Annual Police Reports from 1967 through the 1970s express defensiveness and frustration. Police complained that the (largely African American) communities they were policing were defiant, critical, and refused to provide them necessary information. They complained of being shadowed and challenged by community justice groups. Against the background of these larger-scale political confrontations, this paper explores how officers and targeted community members encountered one another during their most immediate, and most regular, confrontations: the moments when police were arresting those they deemed criminal suspects.

This paper will draw on the Pittsburgh Police History Association Archives, which detail how Pittsburgh police were trained to arrest, and how they described arrests and explained how arrests went wrong. It will supplement this with accounts of arrests in newspapers and trial transcripts. Most importantly, I will conduct interviews this summer with two dozen individuals who were arrested in Pittsburgh in the period between 1967-1980 to capture what arrests looked and felt like from inside the handcuffs. Pittsburgh writer John Edgar Wideman has described Pittsburgh policing in the beginning of this period as characterized by personal relationships between police and the policed, relationships which often involved coercion and violence. At times, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, attempted arrests dissolved into fights between officers and community members. Informal interviews I have done have made similar points. By the end of this period, policing had come to seem more removed, formal, and bureaucratic, in ways that were undeniably positive, but which some “policed” people from those years also see as having led to a new set of problems.

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