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WESA/Campos survey shows crime is a concern ... but residents want new approaches

A series of police caps is arrayed on a wooden table
Crime has been on the rise, but respondents to a WESA/Campos survey say they are looking for solutions that go beyond simply hiring more police.

On the eve of the May 16 primary, a WESA/Campos Pulse survey shows that public safety is a top concern for southwestern Pennsylvania residents, along with infrastructure, housing, and economic growth. But Democrats especially want solutions that go beyond chasing smokestacks or hiring more police.

The survey is the first in a partnership between 90.5 WESA and Campos, a Pittsburgh-based market research firm, and it asked just over 400 adults from Allegheny and surrounding counites to identify key concerns in 2023 and beyond. When respondents were asked which three priorities they wanted local leaders to focus on, 69 percent said crime prevention and public safety, while 54 percent cited infrastructure upkeep and 40 percent said housing and homelessness.

The emphasis on crime is not unexpected: Concerns over public safety have spiked nationwide, with violent crime making headlines even as rates remain below 1990s peaks. But when asked about solutions, residents seemed more enthusiastic about preventive approaches than they were about their leaders hiring more police or investing in more equipment.

Respondents said a top public-safety priority for local leaders should be increasing the police presence in crime hotspots: 46 percent of respondents said that should be among the top three solutions that leaders pursue. But just 30 percent said that hiring more police should be a top priorty. A much larger number of respondents, 45 percent, said leaders should hire more non-police first-responders, like social workers and mental-health experts. And nearly as many respondents said officials should seek to fight crime by providing more resources like affordable housing.

There was a marked partisan difference on public safety questions: Fully 82 percent of respondents who identified themselves as Republicans said crime should be a top concern for elected officials, while only 62 percent of Democrats did. And more than half of Republicans said that hiring more police should be a top priority, while fewer than one Democrat in seven thought so. By contrast, three-fifths of Democrats said hiring non-police to address mental health and other needs should be a top priority.

The survey participants are enrolled in a Campos research panel and were selected to reflect the region’s demographic profiles. The survey has a margin of error of roughly 5 percent, though for subgroups (like Democrats and Republicans), it is larger.

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While the survey provides a snapshot of residents’ concerns and expectations for elected leaders, it did not ask residents about who they intend to vote for this year. But the numbers suggest that, in an election season where Allegheny County’s District Attorney and County Executive are both on the ballot, concern about crime hasn’t necessarily translated to the kind of lock-’em-up mentality that has prevailed at other periods.

Similarly, Democratic respondents — who make up the bulk of Allegheny County’s population — were far more likely to say leaders should focus on housing policy and homelessness than on “growing the economy.” Forty-four percent of Democrats said housing and homelessness should be a top concern for local elected leaders, while only 22 percent said they should focus on economic growth. Among Republicans, the priorities were reversed.

And opinions about how to grow the economy were also divided. Roughly half of Democrats said the region's economic agenda should include investing in infrastructure among its top three priorities, along with education and vocational training. A number of other proposals — like attracting more tech companies, investing in green energy and expanding access to childcare — were also popular with Democrats. The least popular proposals among this group included expanding the use of tax credits, allowing more energy extraction, and attracting more heavy industry to the area.

Among Republicans, business attraction strategies were far more popular, along with cutting regulations. Republicans were far less likely to see education or childcare access as economic development tools, and showed almost no enthusiasm for green energy.

Those surveyed also expressed lukewarm sentiments about how things were going under the region’s current political leadership. Only 11 percent of voters said things were going “very well," while 43 percent said they were going “moderately well.” One-quarter of voters said conditions were going “slightly well,” and 21 percent said “not well at all.” Women were sunnier in their assessment of current conditions than men, and Democrats were more upbeat than Republicans.

Voters were also queried about their expectations for local sports teams: Asked when of the city’s major league franchises would be the next to win a championship, 39 percent said the Steelers, 29 percent said the Penguins … and a modest 14 percent of true believers predicted the Pirates would win a World Series first.

It remains to be seen how respondents' preferences will translate into the vote counts that will be reported Tuesday evening. In Allegheny County, election officials are expecting a turnout of around 30 percent, and just under 70 percent of the roughly 106,542 mail-in ballots requested by voters were returned by Saturday.

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.