PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The new U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh has created a five-attorney civil rights unit to handle criminal and civil cases involving hate crimes, police misconduct, and other civil rights issues in the 25-county western district of Pennsylvania.
"It is hard to believe that in 2010 we are still fighting for equality of all Americans," U.S. Attorney David Hickton said at a news conference Tuesday.
Hickton took office in August, replacing Mary Beth Buchanan, who resigned last year before her failed bid for Congress, and established the civil rights unit in October. He waited to make a formal announcement until Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general who heads the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, could appear in Pittsburgh with him.
The unit will also target sexual exploitation of children and human trafficking, and civil rights issues more likely to prompt lawsuits than criminal prosecutions, such as biased lending and housing practices.
Perez, Hickton, and his civil rights team met with community and local civil rights leaders at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture before Tuesday's news conference. The center two blocks from the federal courthouse where Hickton works is named for the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who chronicled black life in Pittsburgh.
Perez said Hickton's office is one of roughly a dozen to have created a civil rights unit so far out of 94 U.S. attorneys nationwide.
Hickton could not immediately say how many civil rights cases the office had handled in recent years. Hickton said he expects that number will increase with the move, but said such statistics wouldn't be a good way to judge its success.
The prosecutor declined to offer details about the highest profile civil rights case now being investigated by the office. That involves Jordan Miles, who was an 18-year-old honors student at the city's performing arts high school when he claimed to be wrongly beaten by police in January.
Hickton said the case remains open, and there is no timetable for determining whether criminal charges will be filed against any of the three white undercover Pittsburgh police officers who remain suspended without pay.
Miles claims in a federal lawsuit that the officers apparently assumed he was a troublemaker because he was a young black man walking in a high-crime area. His attorney contends Miles has passed a lie detector test that he did nothing to provoke the incident.
Officers have said they believed Miles had a gun _ which later turned out to be a soda bottle that police did not retain as evidence, and which Miles denies having in the first place. A city judge threw out prowling and related charges that Miles claims were filed as a pretext, after a nearby homeowner who police said denied knowing Miles that day later testified that Miles was, in fact, friends with her son.
Longtime community activist Tim Stevens attended the news conference and said federal prosecutors need to address economic and other inequities that make incidents like the Jordan Miles case possible. He cited statistics that only 3.6 percent of 322 Pittsburgh police officers hired between May 2001 and September 2009 were black.
Stevens, a former Pittsburgh NAACP president who now chairs a coalition called the Black Political Empowerment Project, said Miles is a soft-spoken, polite young man and, "If he could get beaten to a pulp, anybody could."
Pittsburgh police are no strangers to civil rights intervention. The city was forced to hire more women and minority officers after a 1970s court case and in 1997 became the first U.S. city to enter into a consent decree after Justice Department officials determined it had a "pattern and practice" of tolerating police civil rights abuses.
Police in Los Angeles, Steubenville, Ohio, and the New Jersey State Police later came under similar decrees.
A federal judge lifted the Pittsburgh decree in 2002, after police enacted reforms.
Stevens said the Jordan Miles case shows more work remains.
"I try to be somewhat objective because police are not always guilty and the community is not always innocent, but this is one I'll go to my grave believing (that) they beat this kid unmercifully ... and it was unnecessary," Stevens said.