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Pittsburgh mayor overhauls how police handle civil protests

Pittsburgh’s mayor on Friday put new limits on dispatching police to civil protests, halted the practice of having plainclothes officers in unmarked cars jump out and arrest people and ordered officers to stop wearing camouflage at protests.

Democratic Mayor Bill Peduto also said a commander will be designated to oversee police response to protests and there will be a greater emphasis on ensuring that the tactical role for police at protests is “balanced” with improving police-community relations and protecting First Amendment rights.

“I have repeatedly watched interactions between police and protesters that escalated to uses of less-lethal weapons, arrest methods and other actions that I do not support, and which run counter to our common principles,” Peduto said in a release announcing the changes.

He said police special response teams with crowd control training won’t be the primary response to incidents and protests, but instead will be used “when absolutely necessary to protect the public health.” The special response teams will be getting a new command structure and written guidelines that his administration is currently developing.

Peduto also said he and Chief Scott Schubert are “reinforcing” with officers that media should be protected while covering protests and allowed to freely monitor them.

“Their presence and coverage are the backbone of transparency, accountability and democracy, and I apologize if that was hindered in any way on Wednesday,” Peduto said.

Police dispersed a small number of protesters who had stayed outside Peduto’s home overnight Wednesday morning, after which the mayor issued a statement decrying his neighbors being “harassed and threatened.”

That night, Peduto met for about an hour with protesters on his stoop, but afterward police ordered protesters and reporters to leave, sending them into a nearby park where they were again told to disperse, after which pepper spray was used and at least one arrest was made.

Demonstrators had been drawn to the mayor’s home in the Point Breeze neighborhood to voice complaints about how protests have been handled in recent months, including the arrest by plainclothes officers of a protester during a march last weekend. The suspect was then put in an unmarked white van.

Similar anonymous arrest tactics have drawn objections recently in New York and Portland, Oregon.

Peduto said Monday the “jump out” arrest tactics were not permissible and vowed they would never again be used at a peaceful protest.

Public safety officials said the protester had been endangering the public and they used a “low visibility” arrest to avoid inflaming the situation.