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'I'm committed to this': Gainey unveils new plan to target Pittsburgh's gun violence problem

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

After a string of high-profile deadly shootings in Pittsburgh, including one that killed a toddler earlier this week, Mayor Ed Gainey has announced his administration’s strategy to curb gun violence Friday. Gainey unveiled the “Pittsburgh Plan for Peace” at a press conference with a group of experts and city leaders in Beltzhoover.

The plan builds upon existing efforts like Pittsburgh’s Stop the Violence office and lays out new initiatives, including eight city hubs for emergency services and a post-overdose response unit. The city will expand its crisis response intervention teams, which pair a police officer with a social worker to better respond to more nuanced incident calls.

In an impassioned speech, Gainey characterized the plan as a ground-up, trauma-informed approach that targets the root causes of gun violence in addition to addressing public safety. The city will work with hospital systems and community organizations to better understand and intervene in specific areas experiencing trauma.

“It’s going to take all of us to come together to help to resolve these issues,” Gainey said. “Peace is all of our responsibility. I’m committed to this. I’m committed to public safety, and I’m committed to making sure we work together to achieve it.”

The strategy also leans on community and faith leaders, schools and businesses to take part in violence intervention programs. The city will provide grants to community groups to support those programs beginning this year.

Gainey also pointed to the city’s approach to increasing drug treatment uptake. A new city-run needle exchange will launch this summer, where people can access clean supplies and get referred to treatment. Paramedics will be allowed to administer buprenorphine when responding to patients experiencing withdrawal and make direct referrals to recovering services.

But Gainey also stressed that law enforcement will play a key role in the effort. The city will use crime data to target specific areas where violence is more likely to occur, Gainey said. He estimated that the majority of violent crimes in the city could be attributed to about 200 people working in groups of eight to ten.

Assistant Police Chief Lavonnie Bickerstaff said Friday that officials were still mapping out where the city’s hotspots are and how to target police resources there. “We haven’t mapped them all out yet. They’re going to be mapped out in sectors,” she said.

The plan names at least three areas of concern.

“Overall, the bulk of these crimes occur within our Central, East End and Northside communities that are disproportionately segregated and poor, with lower rates of homeownership and more abandoned structures, under-resourced schools, struggling local businesses and a shortage of other needed neighborhood amenities,” the plan reads.

Questions arose at the press conference about whether there are enough police officers to carry out the new strategy. Pittsburgh has struggled to retain officers in recent years, according to police chief Scott Schubert. And as more officers retire, more recruits will be needed to replace them.

According to Lee Schmidt, the city’s director of Public Safety, an outside consultant will analyze the department over the next few months to determine how many officers are needed and how they fit into the city’s overall strategy.

“We want [officers] to engage with community, and we want them to handle crime that is significant,” he said. “We have other resources to deal with mental health.”

Many of the ideas in the plan are familiar, and some build on existing programs. But City Councilor Ricky Burgess said Friday that Gainey’s “Plan for Peace” is different because the administration is different.

“I have been working on this my entire career. And we have for the first time a mayor who is going to put his full weight behind the best blue-ribbon practices and putting money into the community.” Burgess said. “Our message to every resident is that we are going to keep you safe. To those who do not want to change their life, they have to deal with the consequences of law enforcement, but for those who do want to change their life, we’re going to provide them with every resource and every encouragement.”

Gainey reiterated his administration’s commitment to public safety. He said the city will continually evaluate the programs to make adjustments and data-driven improvements but stressed that results will not happen overnight.

“Even when they start the work and things get better, we think that’s the end,” he said of past efforts. “This plan right here is not just a plan for the day. We need this plan to be 20 to 30 years in the making.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.