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Courts & Justice

Pittsburgh Police Hope New ATF Unit & Help From The Public Can Reverse Increase In Gun Violence

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Matt Rourke
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AP

According to the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, there has been a 55% increase in the number of Pittsburgh homicides in the first six months of 2021 compared to the same timeframe in 2020. A gun was used in 93% of those homicides.

On Thursday, police stood with the families of shooting victims at the Center for Victims on the city’s South Side. Officials are asking the public to help reverse the upward trend.

“No community, no zone in the city of Pittsburgh is immune. It’s happening in a lot of different places and we’re losing our loved ones to this senseless violence,” said Police Chief Scott Schubert.

Two mothers who lost sons to gun violence, Valerie Dixon and Preeti Tuli, joined officials to implore the public to intervene before a shooting happens.

“You know who’s in your community with a gun. You know who is bringing drama to your community. You know who lives in your house that you’re scared of,” Dixon said. “You’ve got to reach out. Because that violence is going to come to your front door and then you’re going to be standing at the next press conference.”

Dixon’s son Robert was killed in a 2001 shooting. Tuli’s teenage son Ahmir was shot and killed outside of the family’s bar, Preeti’s Pitt, in February. Tuli broke down recounting the details of her son’s murder.

“I really feel like we need to come together,” she said of the public’s role in investigating crimes. “People need to start talking. There are tip lines. You can remain anonymous.”

Dixon said community members should focus on the root cause of gun violence and that families should seek help managing their trauma to stop the cycle.

“Because we don’t want your mother to be visiting that cemetery every week, talking to grass and flowers and a headstone,” Dixon said.

According to police, of the 31 homicides, six victims were minors. They include 15-year-old Christian Redinger, who was killed in Brookline last week.

“All those numbers you just heard, those are families. Those are lives left behind in this community,” Dixon said. “We have to live with this until the day we die.”

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Kiley Koscinski
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90.5 WESA
Valerie Dixon and Preeti Tuli speak at a press conference Thursday about losing their sons to gun violence.

Non-fatal shootings increased by 24% in the first six months of 2021 compared to the same timeframe in 2020. Fourteen minors have been shot in Pittsburgh so far this year. The youngest child was six-years-old.

Assistant Police Chief Lavonnie Bickerstaff said the increase is due in part to the loss of programs that help prevent gun violence, which were paused due to the pandemic. “Teachers, rec center counselors, coaches,” Bickerstaff said. “They let us know what’s going on.”

Officials said overall crime was up 38% over April 2020, but noted that timeframe was during the pandemic lockdown. Officials declined to provide data for 2019.

A rise in violent crime is not unique to Pittsburgh. President Joe Biden announced Wednesday new efforts to address a nationwide increase in gun violence. Biden’s plan includes cracking down on gun sellers who violate federal law, supporting local law enforcement to address summer crime increases, investing in community violence intervention programs and other strategies.

Biden also called on Congress to confirm his nominee to direct the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The agency investigates the illegal use and trafficking of firearms among other responsibilities.

Pittsburgh Police officials plan to launch a firearms tracking unit with the ATF to stem the flow of illegal firearms in the region. Officials said Thursday that straw purchasing —when a person legally buys a firearm and then sells or gifts it to someone prohibited from owning the weapon— has increased locally and this unit will help to address that. Assistant Chief Bickerstaff declined to provide a specific timeline, but said the unit would launch in the coming weeks.