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David Harris Interview

Jody DiPerna

Sep 16, 2020

In "A City Divided", Pitt Law Professor Examines the Jordan Miles Case

It has been a touch over 10 years since Jordan Miles' violent encounter with the Pittsburgh Police in Homewood shook the city. It was January cold at 11 o'clock at night as the senior at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts school (CAPA) was walking the very short distance from his mother's house to his grandmother's house. The streets and sidewalks were covered with snow and ice and all the leftover mess you find in mid-winter in Pittsburgh. An unmarked car rolled up on him.

Right here is where accounts of the events split. And as the case unfolded in live time, the city of Pittsburgh split, too. Most everybody was shocked, saddened and angered, but for different reasons.

David Harris is the Sally Ann Semenko Chair at the University of Pittsburgh Law school and an expert on racial profiling. His book 'A City Divided: Race, Fear and the Law in Police Confrontations' (Anthem Press, 2020) is a thorough and assured examination of the incident, public response and the law around the case.

"I'd been doing work in the police reform field, or if you want to put it another way, where criminal justice and race intersect, at that time for 15 years at least" Harris told the Current. "I had been a practicing lawyer in the criminal courts. I saw everything that I had known and worked on beginning to play out right in front of me. I thought, I have to pay attention to this. This is every lesson, every piece of research, everything I've ever done -- it's all here in one case."

Jordan Miles says he didn't know the men were cops. He was scared, so he ran. He fell and they caught him. He struggled and they administered a beating. He thought he was going to die. When he learned the men were police, he was actually relieved, though he had no idea why he was arrested.

On the other side is the story of the police and those who backed them. The police maintain that Miles was acting suspiciously and he ran even though they clearly identified themselves as police.

Harris said, "It wasn't just police officers -- they had great support from many people who just didn't understand why this young man didn't just talk to the police, why was he lying about it, just a whole set of assumptions."

The police said Miles' coat pocket looked like it had something heavy in it which they were sure was a gun. They said he fought the three men off and kept reaching for that pocket; they used only the force necessary to subdue him. Though they never found a gun, they were certain there was one.

"There are plenty of guns (on the street). You cannot discount that -- that is something that American police have to consider all the time," Harris clarified. "Still, the idea that they (officers Michael Saldutte, Richard Ewing and David Sisak) settled on -- he had a gun -- there was no disabusing them of that notion. Even when it doesn't show up. They give it a good look. They don't find it. It was just, we weren't wrong about that."

Police charged Miles with aggravated assault and resisting arrest. Soon, photos of Miles' misshapen, swollen face, with bald patches where his dreads had been pulled out, were all over the news everywhere. People were outraged.

Two months later, Magistrate Judge Oscar Petite, Jr. dismissed the criminal charges against him at a preliminary hearing. Harris says it is incredibly uncommon -- unheard of, really -- for charges to be dismissed at this stage. It was the FOP's turn to be outraged.

"There is no other way to read it except [the judge] did not believe the police officer. He doesn't totally come out and say that. … There is no way to come to any other conclusion: he simply didn't believe the police story."

Miles sued the police and the city in a civil suit in Federal Court. There were two civil trials before the case settled (for $125,000) and, in reviewing the transcripts from those trials, Harris was struck by the assertion that Miles simply had to know the men were police officers because they were white.

"People just said it. The lawyers and people arguing for the police: what would three white guys be doing in Homewood? Other than being the police and enforcing the law?" Harris said, noting that it came up more than once.

He was surprised that this portrayal of Homewood as an entirely Black and entirely lawless place that had to be policed by white people just slid by. It was said and nobody checked it.

"It was hard to miss. It might be that people were not as awake to it then, but it was there. And it served to make its own point -- to say what it said -- to point out there are certain roles people have in certain spaces," he said.

The Jordan Miles case as a microcosm of where we are right now. It speaks to what happens when the atmosphere is so charged that the fear is palpable. And it goes to the heart of systemic racism and the activists who continue to fight for meaningful reform.

This story originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Current on September 16, 2020

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