PITTSBURGH — Federal intervention to curb police abuse did not begin after chants of “I can’t breathe,” viral cellphone videos or the Black Lives Matter movement.
It began 21 years ago here in Pittsburgh, where the police were laden with complaints that black residents were routinely singled out for false arrest and abuse. In a City Hall conference room, Chief Robert McNeilly faced a team of lawyers from the Justice Department — young, smartly dressed and newly empowered to rein in the department.
Sizing up the investigators, Chief McNeilly — dressed, as usual, in uniform — had one thought he could not get out of his mind: “There was nobody with any police experience.”
Still, the negotiators groped their way to the first federal “consent decree,” an 83-paragraph court-enforced agreement in 1997 that turned Pittsburgh into a widely emulated model department — for a time, at least.