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Courts & Justice

Pittsburgh Police Annual Report Shows Lower Crime, Arrest Rates, But Racial Imbalances Persist

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Megan Harris
/
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh’s police bureau issued its 2020 annual report just three weeks before a mayoral election in which policing is a key issue — and, along with a mostly upbeat look at the city’s crime numbers, it offers talking points both to Mayor Bill Peduto and to his challengers.

Calling 2020 “a year of great challenges and successes” marked by the coronavirus pandemic and national protests for police accountability, the report shows a city that remains safe. In 2020, city police recorded a total of 7,650 serious crimes like rape, aggravated assault, arson, murder and theft. That’s a 20 percent drop from the year before.

Homicides were a notable exception: The 51 homicides committed last year were a significant jump from the 39 posted the year before, and presaged a bigger jump so far this year. But the murder rate in 2019 was unusually low, and 2020’s total is still low compared to the rates posted between 2015 and 2018, when the homicide count mostly ranged in the high 50s.

On the campaign trail, meanwhile, Peduto has been citing another number fleshed out in the report: that city police used deadly force in only two incidents in 2020. One of those resulted in the death during an exchange of gunfire following a traffic stop in the North Side last spring. (The other officer shooting did not result in any injuries.)

But the report also contains data points that underscore the racial tensions that have driven the policing debate.

The number of arrests by city police continued a long-term decline last year: There were 7,833 arrests carried out by city police officers in 2020 — down from 9.500 arrests the year before, and half the number in 2015.

But as WESA reported earlier this year, while arrest rates declined across all racial groups in the city, the rate of decline has been smallest among Black arrestees. The result is that Black people actually make up a larger share of those arrested now than in previous years: In 2020, the 5,111 Black arrests made up nearly two-thirds of those arrested. That’s about triple the Black share of the city’s population.

Black residents also bear a heavier burden from crime itself — nearly 9 in 10 homicide victims were black last year. But state Rep. Ed Gainey, who is challenging Peduto for mayor, has argued that the numbers prove that Black communities are over-policed. And Black residents are also far more likely to be frisked by police or charged with a marijuana offense: Blacks were charged for marijuana 85 percent of the time, including a small number of cases where there was no other offense charged.

The report shows the city still struggling to recruit black police officers — a problem that has afflicted the department for years and over multiple mayoral administrations. The most recent class of police recruits, the report says, included only two Black officers out of 32. That’s a rate of just over 6 percent — less than one-fourth of the Black share of the population.

On police conduct, the report says that some 100 disciplinary actions, ranging from oral reprimands to firing, were taken against officers last year — roughly the same as the 97 actions taken the year before. The report says 22 officers were sued in court last year, though the cases include a sweeping civil-rights lawsuit alleging misconduct from the command level down during a protest in East Liberty last June.

But in a message accompanying the report, Police Chief Scott Schubert makes clear that police brass are mindful of the tenuous relationship between police and many communities of color.

Schubert said that, after “the unconscionable death of George Floyd,” protests in Pittsburgh and across the country led to “a national cry for equity and reform, especially as it related to policing and social justice. We heard that message.”

The report is 169 pages, nearly triple the 2019 year-in-review. Some of the expansion stems from material devoted to officer commendations and a copious documentation of community-outreach efforts, including photographs of police — some on horseback — with children.

In his message, Schubert recalled that he had taken a walking tour of every city neighborhood and said he had seen “Pittsburgh Police officers responding to call after call. It made me proud to lead such a professional and caring group of men and women. I also found a city of residents who sincerely seek unity, concerned citizens who worry about their less fortunate neighbors and desire the ability to lift those who need help, those who have historically been overlooked or even oppressed. ... Your words will continue to guide my actions as the head of this noble bureau, and to guide our policy for years to come.”