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Violence-intervention experts argue Pittsburgh's community policing strategy will take time to work

Pittsburgh City Council met with members of violence intervention groups to learn more about how the city is confronting gun violence.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh City Council met with members of violence intervention groups to learn more about how the city is confronting gun violence.

As Pittsburgh seeks to tamp down a surge in violent crime, City Council members and a group violence initiative team met Monday to discuss how to achieve that goal.

“I believe we’re in a tremendous place to really begin reducing the shootings and deaths that occur in our city,” said Councilman Daniel Lavelle, noting the city has directed the most money in its history toward these efforts this year. Lavelle said his aim is to reduce gun deaths in Pittsburgh by 25 percent next year.

To do that, the city will partner with community groups working on violence reduction to connect at-risk residents to crime-deterrent resources such as jobs and housing. The city will also collect data to monitor where resources are flowing and gauge whether those community groups have been effective.

The city has awarded about $1 million in grants to community groups in 2022, with the first checks having been sent out in September. According to Lavelle, that's a sharp rise in funding compared to previous years.

Pittsburgh’s uptick in violent crime this year follows a nationwide trend. But according to Taili Thompson, director of violence prevention at Operation Better Block, Pittsburgh’s commitment to treating violence as a public health issue sets it apart from some other comparable cities.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” said Thompson. He is working with Carnegie Mellon University to create an interactive dashboard so the city to track where outreach teams are needed and what resources the city can provide. Thompson said compiling such metrics was a way for the city to keep its partners accountable.

Experts did not provide many specifics about how the group violence initiative and community groups have affected crime rates in 2022. But, according to Thompson, outreach workers followed up on 71 referral requests in the last month in North Homewood alone. “Those are people actually engaging folks on the ground within these communities, connecting them to resources,” he said.

Community outreach is one of the key components of Mayor Ed Gainey’s “Pittsburgh Plan for Peace.” The plan relies on community policing, with officers maintaining regular communication with citizens and community leaders. Proponents of the model argue those relationships help cities address mistrust of police, and foster better neighborhood participation when solving crimes.

On Monday, experts stressed the Pittsburgh Police and Pittsburgh Public Schools have key roles to play. DeVon Madden, an outreach worker with the city’s group violence initiative, has been part of a violence-intervention team at Carrick High School. Madden was brought to the school after a brawl involving nearly 100 students broke out in September.

Madden said his group worked with the school’s principal to investigate the incident and carry out mediation to prevent a similar scenario from occurring. He brought former students and other community members to speak to students at the school.

Rev. Glenn Grayson with the Cares REACH program said that over the last year, his organization has found that school partnerships are a much larger piece of the puzzle than they originally thought.

“We are now kind of at schools every day,” he said.

Vaughn Rivers, a supervising training coordinator with REACH, said the group can feel limited by its contract with the city, which requires it to focus programming on 18- to 34-year-olds. Rivers argued intervention often needs to take place earlier, so it reaches "the lives of younger children before [a problem] gets to the point of gun violence.”

Monday's meeting was led by Councilor Ricky Burgess, who argued that the anti-violence initiative began bringing down crime before the pandemic. He said that if the city rebuilt struggling communities, there would be less violence spilling over into other neighborhoods as young people see a better future for themselves.

“The shootings on the South Side are not by kids who live … in the South Side,” Burgess said, “The shootings are still happening by kids who live in Black, brown, poor communities.”

Some council members, including president Theresa Kail-Smith and District 4’s Anthony Coghill, have advocated for more investment in the city’s police force as a way to prevent crime. On Monday, Kail-Smith noted violent crime was historically low when Pittsburgh “had [a] higher number of police officers, which meant we had opportunity to build police-community relations.”

Earlier in the meeting, Burgess warned that “the knee-jerk reaction is always to have more police. If crime goes up, we need more police. If crime goes down, it worked, let’s get more police.”

Burgess also warned that results won’t come overnight.

“If we would stick with this for the next 10 years," Burgess said, city leaders "have the opportunity to see transformational change in the African-American community and in poor communities in our city."

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.