Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pittsburgh's public safety director announces departure

Liz Reid
90.5 WESA
Hissrich, who became public safety director in January 2016, oversaw an office that houses the city’s bureaus of police, fire, emergency medical services and animal control.

Wendell Hissrich, the city of Pittsburgh’s Public Safety Director since January 2016, is leaving city government — a move he announced days before a new administration is sworn in.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, Hissirch said he was “beyond thankful” to Mayor Bill Peduto “for providing me the opportunity to return to Pittsburgh as the Director of Public Safety. … We've seen lots of change, and even trying times together; and hopefully we were able to make a positive difference over these past six years.”

The statement, which added that Hissrich “has no current plans to announce regarding the future,” was issuedafter KDKA reported that incoming Mayor Ed Gainey's camp “informed him that they would be seeking someone else for the role.”

That could not be immediately confirmed Thursday afternoon. But in a statement later that evening, Gainey's camp confirmed that he "determined that achieving the public safety reforms that the voters elected him to implement would require new leadership in the Public Safety Department. Accordingly, he notified Director Hissrich that he would not be retaining his services upon entering office."

The statement, attributed to transition director Jake Pawlak, added that Gainey "thanks Director Hissrich for his service to Pittsburgh and wishes him well in his future endeavors.”

Hissrich had overseen an office that houses the city’s bureaus of police, fire, emergency medical services and animal control. During his tenure, the police department transitioned from police chief Cameron McClay — a reformer from Madison, Wisconsin who had an uneasy relationship with the force — to Scott Schubert, who’d risen up through the force’s own ranks.

Hissrich's tenure coincided with the Tree of Life shooting in 2018, and he presided over a period in which concerns about policing nationwide were on the rise, and local law enforcement’s handling of the Black Lives Matter movement also was sharply criticized. The end of his tenure has been shadowed by the death of Jim Rogers after police shocked him with a Taser, which the city has said will lead to discipline and policy changes. Given that Gainey campaigned heavily on police-reform issues, Hissrich's departure is not a surprise.

But along with Schubert, Hissrich also oversaw a period in which individual complaints about police misconduct remained lower than in prior administrations. City officials have credited him as a steady, ever-present figure in times of crisis, and for transforming a number of aspects of public safety — from staffing up the fire bureau to working on a number of community-outreach initiatives.

Peduto's outgoing chief of staff, Daniel Gilman, said, "Wendell Hissrich's background as a former paramedic, volunteer firefighter and FBI agent made him uniquely qualified to lead our public safety bureau. He worked 24/7/365, pouring his heart into the well-being of his employees and the people of Pittsburgh. You could never ask anyone to give more or care more. The mayor and I will both be forever grateful for his service."

A native of Forest Hills who graduated from Duquesne University, Hissrich had been a paramedic for the city before joining the FBI, where he worked for a quarter-century.

*This story was updated at 10:39 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 31, 2021 to include a statement from the transition team of Ed Gainey.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.