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In county executive race, Lamb proposes regional, holistic approach to public safety

Michael Lamb smiling while giving a speech.
Lamb campaign
Lamb campaign
Allegheny County executive candidate Michael Lamb's plan for public safety begins with Downtown Pittsburgh, where concerns over crime and homelessness have grown more pressing since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Allegheny County executive hopeful Michael Lamb says that the county needs a more regional, and more holistic, approach to addressing public-safety concerns in Downtown Pittsburgh and across the region. And his vision for that approach brings his longtime interest in government reform to bear on crime concerns that are top-of-mind for some residents.

Lamb currently serves as Pittsburgh city controller. But in a statement detailing his public-safety proposals, he cited his support for overhauling county government in the late 1990s. “It took vision and determination to act on that vision,” he said. "That’s what I bring to the table: the ability to not only recognize a good idea or identify a problem, but the knowledge and the wherewithal to turn that vision into reality.”

The “Lamb Plan for a Safer Allegheny County,” begins with Downtown Pittsburgh, where concerns over crime and homelessness have grown more pressing since the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an interview, Lamb said that a current stopgap solution — using county police to augment city patrols in the area — was “a short-term kind of situation, given the manpower issue that city police have right now.” And while he said county police could work more closely with the city on special events, the area needed more lasting changes.

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Such an approach would seek to open up more public restrooms — an issue local leaders have identified as a concern — while investing more in clean-up efforts and providing social services. It would also involve working with charter and traditional public schools in the area to create afterschool activities.

“High school kids coming through Downtown is a good thing: [Local businesses] want that vibrancy,” he said. But “there needs to be some positive reinforcement around their presence. We can build an after-school model that could really have a positive impact.”

Lamb has already articulated some of his agenda over the course of his campaign. It includes, for example, a call for an audit of the Allegheny County Jail and new leadership at the facility — a call that echoes his pledge from the outset of his campaign to replace Allegheny County Jail warden Orlando Harper. And he has previously stated that while the county needs a juvenile detention facility to replace the now-shuttered Shuman Detention Center, it should not be privately run, and should serve a multi-county region.

And like fellow candidate John Weinstein, Lamb says he’d seek to bolster education and vocational training at the facility. Stays for most young people at Shuman lasted for less than two weeks, but Lamb says even that gives educators a chance to “get in with some of these kids and really give them an alternative and get them interested. This becomes a way to identify potential apprentices [for] these programs.”

Lamb’s statement also calls for new court diversionary programs to keep people with mental health crises and substance-use problems out of the criminal justice system. The statement also includes an all-caps demand to “END CASH BAIL.”

In many respects, a county executive’s power to enact such changes is limited. The district attorney is independently elected, as are the judges who oversee trials and other proceedings, and those are the offices that make decisions about bail and sentencing. And local municipalities generally run their own police departments — a county police oversight board created in 2021, for example, has no jurisdiction over local police departments unless they grant it voluntarily.

But Lamb says he would use the county executive position to begin a conversation about more regional, and less punitive approaches to public safety. He pledged to hold an “Allegheny County Justice Summit” in the first 100 days of his administration, to bring together first responders, civic leaders and social-service providers to better coordinate a response to violence. eE said the effort would be modeled on “Omaha 360,” a program being adopted elsewhere in which leaders in the Nebraska city gather weekly to respond to crime trends.

“They’ve seen significant reduction in violent crime, they’ve seen significant reduction in use of force,” Lamb said. “Having those ongoing periodic conversations is important.”

Beyond that, Lamb says he’d encourage more pooling of resources among the county’s municipalities. That would involve “mutual aid” agreements in which communities formalize agreements to help each other. It could also involve efforts to encourage more regional public-safety departments.

Lamb has long been steeped in such policy prescriptions. He’s previously pushed for a less patchwork approach to paramedic service — and he said emergency service providers have seen the benefits. .

“There was a time when there were 100 EMS providers,” he said..” You’ve seen a lot of consolidation of that service [and] I think that same kind of discussion needs to happen around police, and I think the county is really the entity that can facilitate that conversation.”

He said too that thinking regionally could also resolve another source of inequity in the criminal justice system: the fact that police in different municipalities may have different ideas about the kind of crimes worth arresting people for.

“One of the issues we have with why there are so many people in the county jail who shouldn’t be there is we don’t have consistency across municipalities with respect to arrests around small amounts of drugs. So we’re still putting a lot of people in the system. … I think that’s one of the things this criminal justice summit can talk about.”

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.