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As Violent Crimes Increase In Some City Neighborhoods, Residents Debate Officer Visibility

Matt Rourke
AP Photo
Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert

Like many other parts of the country, Pittsburgh has experienced an increase in violent crime during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, some sections of the city have seen more police officers within their neighborhoods responding to crime in recent months, even after a year of protests aimed at reducing Pittsburgh’s reliance on its police.

Some residents believe more police officers are needed to address crime. Some activists, however, say the city would be better off with fewer police — and a year and a half into the pandemic, its disruptive effects could make their wish a reality.

City crime statistics show that, from January to June of this year, the number of violent crimes such as homicide or assault increased by nearly 6% over the first half of last year. This year's violent crime rate is still lower than it was between 2016 and 2020.

The increase in crime should give people pause before they talk about defunding the police or reducing officers in Black neighborhoods, Homewood resident Zinna Scott said. Scott, president of the Zone Five Public Safety Council, said she believes the presence of police curbs violence.

But since talks of defunding the police and reducing officers in Black neighborhoods gained momentum last year, Scott said she has welcomed people to offer answers for an alternative.

“What do we do without the police? I want to know who’s going to patrol the streets, who’s going to take care of any thefts, any gun violence, anybody killing somebody else,” she said. “Once somebody can show me that that can be taken care of without police, I’m OK. In the meantime, I don’t see that happening.”

‘Don’t over-police but don’t under-police’

In her neighborhood, Scott said, she sees having more police as a benefit. But she also understands concerns of over-policing.

“Over-policing sometimes happens. I’m not going to say it doesn’t, and in those instances it needs to be dealt with,” she said. “… I’ll say that it doesn’t happen nearly as often as it used to.”

Through the summer, the South Side has been the hot spot for several violent crimes, including multiple shootings. In an effort to curb violence, the city made East Carson Street a one-way street, increased police visibility, and prohibited ride shares there.

Robert Cavalier, a board member of the South Side Community Council, said East Carson Street has been an issue for some residents long before the summer shootings due to bars and patrons who don’t respect nearby residential areas. Some residents have appreciated the city’s attention to those concerns, he said, but he cautioned that the police response must be balanced.

“You don’t want some of the party-goers to egg [police] on so that you have a scene that someone else can videotape and make a big political statement about,” Cavalier said. “The cautionary note would be, don’t over-police but also don’t under-police.”

Cavalier said the changes also have impacted some businesses in the area.

“One cafe restaurant owner felt that the way the traffic was being rerouted, it kind of created a kind of a traffic gridlock that would make it difficult for people to come in and go to the restaurant,” he said. “So, there are plenty of concerns about that.”

Scott said the kinds of changes happening in the South Side haven't happened in Homewood, in response to violence there.

“That doesn't happen in Homewood. It's unrealistic, it would never happen in Homewood,” she said. “And we in African American communities and low-income communities are just shaking our head. Because that's a whole lot of resources being put into an area so businesses can still make money.”

Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert said the city has a reason for all of that focus on the South Side: It’s crowded.

“There's a lot of people in a very condensed area in the South Side and a lot of people drinking,” he said. “And we're finding guns, we've had shootings and things like that. So, I mean, that's why there's a lot of additional officers, and we've been doing everything we can to ensure that we're minimizing any impact on the other communities when we do that.”

Police Response

Brandi Fisher, president of the Alliance for Police Accountability, said police response to violence seems logical because it is what people have been “taught.”

“We have been taught by society that police equals safety, but we know in actuality, is not for all communities is that true,” Fisher said. “Namely [those are] Black communities and communities of lower economic, social-economic status. And we would say that the police have not been working to improve crime.”

Fisher said she believes that instead of putting so much of its budget toward the police department, the city should spend the money elsewhere like housing and job accessibility.

“Instead of taking all of this money and investing it in policing … we need to invest it in the community, into the people themselves.”

State Rep. Ed Gainey, the Democratic nominee for Pittsburgh mayor, has said in the past that over-policing is an issue in Homewood, where he lives. But he said in a recent interview with WESA that he understands why residents want officers in their communities and that there must be trust between the police and community.

“If we were building that trust, we wouldn’t have the over-policing,” Gainey said. “Cops need to walk the beat. They need to know who the community is.”

Gainey said he agreed with such changes in public safety strategies as rerouting traffic and increasing police visibility on East Carson Street, but he said the city must do more to curb violence as well.

“We need to drill down to the root cause of what’s causing this violence. We can ramp up police patrol. But those are temporary fixes to a long-term solution,” he said. “… From a public health perspective, we need to figure out what we can do to address this violence.”

Schubert, the police chief, pointed to the disruptive effects of the pandemic.

“You had the pandemic, social unrest, you had a contentious election, you've had people let out of jails, you've had court cases that weren't moving forward because of the pandemic,” Schubert said. “So, I think there's a litany of things … I think there's a lot of issues that probably play a part of the rise in violence.”

Schubert said police also have responded to calls, only to find suspects who already were accused of other violent crimes but whose court dates had been postponed due to the pandemic. He said he believes those kinds of cases play into the increase in crime.

Those who have called for defunding police and decreasing the number of officers on the force may see that happen in the coming months, although not in the way they initially sought. At the end of last year, the city had 991 officers, but Schubert said the department lost 58 to retirement or other departures. And because police budgets and academy training have been frozen due to COVID-19, no new officers are likely to join the department until the end of next year at the earliest.

“When we put classes in, they take generally about 11 months from the first day they walk into the academy until they end academy, and then [they] go through three months or more of field training,” Schubert said.

“So, you're looking at least 11 months right there. So, you're not getting any new bodies coming in, new officers coming in until they complete that whole cycle, and then are able to go out in the street by themselves,” he added. “So, there is concern on how many classes we're going to have.”

By then, future retirements could leave the city with fewer than 900 officers.

“We’re not there yet, but if things would get worse, then you’ve got to look at, ‘OK, well, maybe we can't provide this service, maybe we can't have as many people working in community engagement, maybe don't have as many people working other specialty units,’” he said. “So, it's something we always have to look at and be prepared for. But ultimately, our job is to keep people safe and be able to, if somebody calls us, respond to help them.”

Born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., Ariel finally made a “big move” 45 minutes down the interstate to the University of Alabama where she studied Journalism and International Studies. During her time in college she interned with Tuscaloosa News, a daily newspaper in her college town. After college, she got her first job back in her hometown with Birmingham Times, a weekly where she served as reporter and editor. Ariel made an even bigger move to Pittsburgh and joined the 90.5 WESA family as digital producer. She is adjusting to experiencing actual cold weather.