A young black officer tries to bridge the divide between the police and his people
Officer Aundre Wright The Bridge Builder 3 years in uniform
“I hear something on the radio, I go. Ease the gap between black and white, between police and non-police. Show we’re human.”“I hear something on the radio, I go. Ease the gap between black and white, between police and non-police. Show we’re human.”
One Saturday this fall, as little black boys collided between chalked white lines, officer Aundre Wright mingled comfortably with the crowd at Willie Stargell Field. A swarm of uniformed police patrolled this youth football venue, where the talent and style on the field is challenged by the potential for danger off it.
A woman had been shot in the face outside a game earlier in the season, and Wright wore a bulletproof vest over his blue police uniform. But as he hugged and dapped parents and coaches, everyone recalled a younger Wright wearing the colors of the Garfield Gators or Homewood Bulldogs, ripping across the turf in a blur of speed and aggression.
The 29-year-old went on to play for the University of Pittsburgh before a torn knee ligament derailed his NFL dreams. He wasn’t on duty today, but he came on a mission to “spread love.” Since becoming a police officer three years ago amid the national outrage over police killings of unarmed African-Americans, Wright has waged a personal crusade to bridge the gap between black and blue.
That strained relationship is evident here in the Homewood neighborhood. This is one of the most deadly parts of Pittsburgh, a largely segregated city of 300,000 where blacks make up 20 percent of the population. The police department, which has about 860 officers, is 13 percent black and has been trying to recruit more black officers. Asked about the police, spectators talk about being profiled and cops having bad attitudes for no reason. They mention Leon Ford, an unarmed black man who was paralyzed after being shot by an officer in a 2012 traffic stop. Metal detectors at the field entrance stand vigil to the violent Catch-22 of poor black life across America.
But the people here say Wright isn’t a regular cop — he’s “Dre” from the East Side. They know Dre’s mama. Their son or brother played against Dre the baller. They appreciate how Dre the cop treated their troublemaking cousin. They respect what Dre the man did when a 25-year-old mother of three was shot dead in her car outside the East Hills projects last year.
The murder of Myanne Hayes hurt Wright in a new way. Maybe because his reckoning of the gangster code says women aren’t supposed to be targeted, or because he had seen other men who threatened women walk free. Wright, who was off-duty when he got the news, drove to a Home Depot and bought some signboard and Sharpies. He parked his 2003 Camry on the corner of Wilner and East Hill Drive, not far from where Hayes’ body was found. Wearing civilian clothes, Wright inked out his feelings and placed three signs on his car:
I CARE STOP THE VIOLENCE STOP SHOOTING
He held a fourth sign aloft:
HONK 4 PEACE
Kids getting off school buses stopped to watch the one-man protest. Moms came off their porches with hot chocolate. Every honk from a passing car felt like a chip out of a prison wall. A passer-by put the scene live on Facebook, where 611 people tuned in. Hours passed. Night fell. The December temperature dipped toward freezing.
Wright felt liberated.
“At least somebody knew I cared,” he recalled. “I do think it made a difference. When somebody sees a young black man trying to be positive, everyone gravitates toward that. Even if I reached one person that day and they would think, ‘Maybe I should chill. Maybe I shouldn’t shoot women.’
“Even if it touched that one somebody — that’s all I wanted.”
A wild child
Wright thinks often about his first encounter with police. He doesn’t remember it, but his mother, Charise, told him the story. She was on drugs and nodded off downtown. Three-year-old Dre’s stroller rolled into the street. He was grabbed by a passing cop and placed in foster care.
That inspired his mother to clean up her life for good — Charise became a prison counselor, social worker and devoted mother. Money was tighter than young Dre’s cornrowed hair, and she moved him and his older brother through more than a dozen apartments across Homewood, East Liberty, Garfield and the rest of the city’s black neighborhoods. Nowadays, Pittsburgh feels like a small town to Wright because he can hardly drive a mile in his patrol car without running into a familiar face. Except his father’s. Wright doesn’t know who he is.
Wright was a wild child, full of energy and what he now recognizes as anger. Football was a perfect outlet. He started at age 4 in the all-black City League, which has a different flavor from predominantly white leagues in other parts of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. Players sport two differently colored socks, two-toned face masks, and back pads sagging below their jerseys. Outside the lines, there’s gambling, occasional arrests of coaches and, every few years, gunfire. Many parents choose to avoid the danger and play their boys elsewhere, which only increases the City League’s fierce pride.
Despite his small stature — Wright stands 5-foot-8 today — he terrorized other tykes as a runner, receiver and defensive destroyer. People still remember how he stiff-armed a defender into a backflip. “He was a monster,” said Melvin Lewis, a City League coach who grew up with Wright. “Fast, elusive, vicious, smart. Not too many like Dre. He’s something like a ’hood legend.”
That ’hood was no joke. At age 13, Wright saw a friend’s head shattered by a bullet. He was robbed at gunpoint and threatened with firearms numerous times. While a freshman at the Perry Traditional Academy, a public school across town on the North Side, Dre was so poor he wore the same outfit 30 days straight – black thermal crew neck, black Dickies, black Timberlands. His hair stayed in four thick, fuzzy braids. But Dre was also a cutup who made everybody laugh, according to Desmond Brentley, his best friend and quarterback of the football team.
The inseparable Des and Dre followed the ’hood rules for dealing with cops: “You don’t talk to them, you don’t deal with them,” Wright recalled. “When you see them, you leave. If you see them coming in that wagon, you run.”
The pair got pulled over while driving all the time. Wright didn’t consider it harassment — just the normal course of life, like hearing gunfire or getting robbed. Why dwell on the negative when there were touchdowns to score and girls to chase? Plus, he didn’t engage in criminal activity. So if the cops wanted to search him? Go right ahead.
“You’re usually not as upset if you’re not guilty,” Wright said.
He graduated in 2006, spent a year in prep school to raise his abysmal grades and signed to play football for Pitt. He had a promising first season, averaging 21 yards per kickoff return, and his time of 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash tabbed him as an NFL-level talent. But his role was reduced as a sophomore under a new offensive coordinator who liked big receivers. He moved to cornerback in spring practice and tore his ACL trying to toss a 300-pound lineman.
While rehabbing his injury, Wright interned with the Police Department. During a ride-along, his trainer responded to a call about a girl whose bracelet had been snatched. Despite instructions to watch from the car, Wright couldn’t help himself when the suspect was spotted — he jumped out and gave chase.
“As soon as we brought her stuff back,” Wright said, “it was like, I want to do this.”
Wright wasn’t healed enough to play his junior year. Afterward, the coaches said he was no longer in Pitt’s plans. He graduated in May 2011 with a degree in criminal justice, two years of eligibility remaining and an infant son with his college girlfriend. He accepted a scholarship offer from Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania but left after a month, doubting that IUP could get him to the NFL and in need of money to support his son.
He spent the next year working as a security guard for $8.80 per hour and driving a school bus for $33 per trip. One day, he was assigned to pick up the football team at Perry, his alma mater. Coach Bill Gallagher boarded the bus, looked at his former star player and said, “Dre, what happened?”
“That was pain, right through the heart,” Wright said. He went home and Googled “how to become a police officer.”
Three years later, Wright was patrolling his old neighborhoods in Pittsburgh.
Showing we’re human
At first, he didn’t know how the ’hood would receive him. Every patrol and call brought a familiar face. Most of the response was positive. But sometimes, making an arrest, he would hear “Uncle Tom this and Uncle Tom that. I’m like, ‘Really?’ I don’t run from it, I try to explain it to them. ‘What else you want me to do? You know I played football, blew my knee out. What am I supposed to do now?’ ”
He realized his mere presence could help defuse tensions: “Let me get in the middle of it so I can bridge the gap in case it turns bad. I want to be able to calm the officer and assure him, and calm the subject.”
Then there were the foot chases.
“When I first got here, for some reason there was a spike in stolen cars. They would jump out and start running,” he said. “It was like a dog and a ball. When they try to run from me, you’re just like, ‘Oh, come on.’ You’re not chasing them to hurt them, you’re just chasing them like a sport.
“You’re running? OK, come on, let’s run!”
Still, each time he put on his uniform, he wondered whether he would make it home. He drew his weapon many times while responding to calls about armed suspects, although he has never pulled the trigger. He began to dream about being forced to shoot someone. Slowly, the dreams turned to nightmares.
After a year and a half on the 4 p.m. to midnight shift, he wanted more of a sense of normalcy. Wright got an assignment as a community resource officer in a racially and economically mixed group of neighborhoods. He attends community events, mediates neighborhood problems and backs up officers who respond to 911 calls.
“I hear something on the radio, I go. Ease the gap between black and white, between police and non-police. Show we’re human.”
His main goal is to show that he cares and that he wants to help. That starts with listening, really listening, to what a person has to say. Patience is one of his most useful tools. Another is assistance. That could mean explaining why someone is being arrested and how to bail him out. Other times, just being black and sympathetic helps. If things are already hostile, he might give both cop and citizen an avenue to back down.
“It’s love. Just spread love. Not many police rep it,” he said.
Why him? Wright goes back to the cop who grabbed his stroller out of the street, and how it changed his mother’s life: “You never know who that person is and how you can change their life just off of anything.”
It doesn’t have to get that dramatic for Wright to believe that’s he’s making a difference.
One December morning, Wright parked his cruiser near the blighted corner of North Homewood and Frankstown avenues. Walking past the barbershops and liquor stores, he received the same pounds and daps as at the football game. A toothless drug addict stopped Wright to ask about another cop who’d promised to get her to rehab. Wright pulled the officer’s number up on his phone and texted him. He listened to the addict ramble on for five minutes.
“People ask for me by name over here,” Wright said. “That’s all I need.”
Harassment or normal life?
Asked about Colin Kaepernick and NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, a protest that has torn apart America’s most popular sport, Wright stepped into his familiar place in the gap. But this tightrope isn’t so easily navigated with charm and goodwill.
“I commend Kaepernick. If that’s your thing, that’s your thing. If you feel like you should stand up for something, stand up for it,” Wright said — and then tried to balance the scales. “I don’t know him personally. I don’t know if it’s a legit angle from him. If he feels like he has a purpose, I respect him. It cost him his spot in the league, so I have to respect it.”
Kaepernick started the protests by citing police violence that left “bodies in the street.” That statement doesn’t sit well with Wright, although he won’t come out and say so. Killer cops don’t jibe with Wright’s three years of experience on the Pittsburgh force — there have only been two fatal police killings during that time, both of them of armed black men — or with his life lessons as a law-abiding youngster.
When Wright turns on his flashers, the camera in his police car is recording everything. If he detains or arrests someone, his report needs to include a solid reason for the stop. There may be a few bad apples, Wright says, but they should and will be held accountable.
His friends at the football game may complain about harassment. But Wright thinks back to his experience as a young man joyriding in his hooptie with his best friend Desmond, screaming out the windows at girls and blasting music through their crummy speakers. The way Wright remembers it, there was always some legal reason, however thin, for them to get pulled over. They missed a stop sign, or circled the block five times, or had beads hanging from their rearview mirror that technically could obstruct their vision. The cops were looking for guns, drugs and drunken drivers. None of that applied to them. Getting stopped wasn’t harassment. Just a normal part of life.
Today, Officer Wright asks how police are supposed to keep drugs and guns out of the black community if people object to legal stops. “If you can prove harassment, if you can prove police are doing the wrong thing, by all means handle your business. But if you’re just complaining because you got stopped and you didn’t get a ticket or there was nothing other than time lost — come on now.”
“Go to your legislator, representatives, speak out, [tell them] this is outrageous. And if he ain’t do nothing, go over his head.”
Speaking out is what Kaepernick and the NFL players are doing. But the chasm they have opened is so wide even Wright has trouble reaching across it.
‘I’m laying you down’
Wright was at his best friend Desmond Brentley’s house one Saturday, watching college football on the television in the kitchen. After high school, Brentley played quarterback at Grambling State and Robert Morris, and he now handles corpses as a city medical examiner. If you see Des and Dre at the same time, “it’s a real bad day for you,” Brentley said.
The childhood friends started talking about the arrest of Michael Bennett. The Seattle Seahawks defensive end had accused Las Vegas police of racial profiling and excessive force. After a report of shots fired, Bennett was tackled and handcuffed. He said the officer put a gun to his head while he was facedown and threatened to “blow my f—ing head off.”
Wright sided with the police. “There’s shots fired, it was a black male, black hoodie. If a black male in a black hoodie comes by, you’re going to put him on the ground — ”
“It wasn’t a black male in a black hoodie, though,” Brentley said. “It was just a casino, shots fired.”
“We don’t know what came on the radio,” Wright responded. “But if that happens, I will put you down. He said he was going to blow his head off. The only reason I think that would be necessary is because you’re running towards the fight and you’ve got to psych yourself up. … It’s going to turn into bolder language.”
“Everything you’re saying, you think that’s right or wrong?” Brentley asked.
Wright stood up.
“If there’s shots fired and somebody runs past, and I’m the fastest dude, I’m laying you down,” he said.
Wright didn’t want to vouch for the specific actions of the officer who arrested Bennett: “I don’t know the angle. I don’t know how far he was away from the shots fired.” What he wanted his childhood friend to understand was the emotion of a cop in that situation, and why he would threaten to kill a suspect.
“You have to understand that we’re supposed to run into the danger. That takes a certain mindset,” Wright said. He crouched in a stance, poised to burst off the line of scrimmage. “I had to rev myself up to take you down. You’re not a robot. You’ve got to talk yourself up to it, or it’s not going to happen. At that point, if you’ve got to kill that dude, that’s what you’re saying. That’s going to be the process in your head.”
Brentley, seated at the kitchen counter, asked Wright whether he had seen the video of Bennett’s arrest, when he was facedown and handcuffed. The video looked like excessive force to him.
“It was probably warranted,” Wright replied, still standing.
Later, Brentley said he tries to empathize with Wright’s descriptions of life as a cop.
“I still don’t know,” he said. “I still get scared by the cops, all these years later.”
Every four or five months, the nightmare returns.
Wright’s gun is in his hand. He says, “Stop! Stop! Stop!” The suspect ignores his commands. “And you’re screaming, you’re screaming, you’re screaming. And then, you just have to.”
Wright’s bullet hits the suspect.
“And you know at that point, your life is probably over, regardless if you’re right, wrong or indifferent. So it’s a nightmare.”
The nightmare nearly turned real one day last year. Wright was driving alone in his cruiser when a call came over the radio. Officers were pursuing robbery suspects on Fifth Avenue in the Oakland neighborhood. They were chasing a white Honda Civic with a broken window. The occupants were four black males, armed.
Wright joined the chase. Through East Liberty, up Negley Run Road, around the Hill District. Wright had been driving these streets his whole life. Every turn the suspects made, he knew where it led. Up in Oak Hill, the Honda crashed and the four people in the car jumped out and ran. Once again, the chase was on.
As he sprinted down the street, adrenaline surging, Wright thought about a local officer recently killed while responding to a domestic dispute.
He tripped one suspect, lay him down and kept running. His second target bent over. Wright wondered whether he was about to get shot. “I just dove. Boom. I tackled him.”
The suspect was a teenager, no more than 17. He didn’t have a pistol — just a BB gun.
“Ouch!” the kid said. “You hurt my shoulder!”
Relief flooded through Wright’s body, then heartache and disappointment at another young black life derailed.
At that moment, there was no gap to be bridged, nowhere to spread the love. Just a young cop trying to keep himself and his community alive.
Updated Dec. 15, 2017, to include demographic data from the Pittsburgh Police.