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Pittsburgh City Council appears overwhelmingly supportive of police chief nominee Scirotto

Larry Scirotto sits at the Pittsburgh City Council table.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Mayor Ed Gainey's pick for Pittsburgh's next chief of police takes questions from City Council members at a three-hour hearing Thursday.

Pittsburgh City Council took the next step toward confirming the city’s next chief of police Thursday. At a special hearing Downtown, Acting Chief Larry Scirotto fielded questions for more than three hours about his policing philosophy, his plan for the bureau and an ongoing lawsuit with his previous employer.

Questions from members of council mainly retraced issues Scirotto had addressed previously in media interviews and at a press conference earlier this month. He reiterated his plan to recruit more officers and improve police-community relations by engaging with young people who might not otherwise consider a career in law enforcement.

But members also drilled into how he hopes to restructure the bureau to stretch a thinning staff. For months, several members of council have sounded an alarm about what officer vacancies could mean for community safety.

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In addition to recruiting more officers, the department can change its priorities to improve its response to more serious matters, Scirotto said. He argued too much time is wasted on low-level incidents.

“Right now, we are a very concierge-oriented police department, and that means anytime you pick up the phone and dial 911, we will send a police car,” Scirotto said. “And they are oftentimes not calls … that require police with that level of training.”

Scirotto said the bureau wastes too many resources by responding to parking violations and false burglar alarms. He estimated Pittsburgh Police responded to 10,000 parking complaints last year, which he said amounts to 45,000 hours of work. Officers often are pulled out of their zones to respond to simultaneous parking complaints Downtown, he said, suggesting that such complaints could be handled by the city parking authority to prevent the “tremendous resource drain” on police.

Council members seemed enthusiastic about authorizing the parking authority to take over those calls. Such a change would require a new city ordinance, members noted. And Councilor Anthony Coghill argued that process could “take years” while police continue to bear the responsibility in the meantime.

Pittsburgh City Council members sit across from Mayor Ed Gainey's nominee for the next chief of police.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh City Council members questioned acting police chiefLarry Scirotto at a hearing Thursday.

Other ideas to save personnel offered by Scirotto included launching an online platform for residents to fill out police reports about low-level crimes and changing how officers respond to automatic burglar alarms. Scirotto said he supports a policy in Detroit that requires further proof of a break-in before an officer responds to a burglar alarm.

Scirotto also has pledged to evaluate all bureau positions to determine which ones could be fulfilled by civilian employees, freeing up more trained officers for specialized duties.

Another key discussion point Thursday focused on the city’s need to recruit new officers — and quickly. Scirotto reported that the officer count has decreased to 806, which is 94 officers short of the bureau’s budgeted number for full staffing. On top of that, police union leaders frequently point out that nearly 230 officers are eligible to retire.

In addition to making Pittsburgh’s limited resources stretch further, the city needs to commit to better recruiting practices, Scirotto said. He confirmed that the city will start two new training classes this year, but it’s unclear how many officers will make it through that process.

Scirotto told WESA last week that he plans to launch a new recruiting unit within the police department to give officers more say in the process and provide recruits with a mentor.

He argued Thursday that the city has fallen short when it comes to recruiting in communities underrepresented within the police ranks.

“We have missed opportunities in our underrepresented communities. And we have to be exceptional in that space to recruit and attract those individuals to the department,” he said, suggesting that officials attend more community events to inform residents about their opportunities within the bureau.

Scirotto added that his approach to recruiting also could help change the culture of policing in Pittsburgh. He argued that the bureau should consider officers to be “guardians” of a neighborhood instead of “warriors.”

“We used to value … the candidate that was No. 1 in the gun club, but we wouldn't value the candidate that was a volunteer at the Boys & Girls Club or with the church with the same level of intention or same level [of] priority,” Scirotto said. “We are here to serve. And in that you must seek those individuals to employ that believe in that philosophy.”

Council members also asked Scirotto about retention efforts and how he promotes officers.

Scirotto’s promotions philosophy came under fire at his previous job as chief in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where city officials fired him after claiming he passed over white candidates for promotions. Scirotto has since filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit.

Though Scirotto made a few remarks about the lawsuit — primarily that he is not seeking to be reinstated in Florida, nor does he anticipate a countersuit — members largely skipped over the matter.

Scirotto was asked about a move to restart a round of promotions in Pittsburgh last week. Some 20 officers already had applied for promotions by a December deadline, and Coghill argued that restarting the process was unfair to them. But Scirotto stood by his decision, saying that reopening the process allowed more officers to apply for promotions.

“If we look back a year from today and you can suggest that someone that was part of that process was selected and less than competent to be in that role, then I will take on all of the darts that you want to throw,” Scirotto said. “But I assure you, the people that we are going to promote are qualified, competent and committed to the vision and value of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police.”

Council President Theresa Kail Smith said Scirotto’s nomination would come up for a vote “soon,” but she said members wanted to speak with him further before that vote would be scheduled. She told WESA that the city still may hold a public hearing to allow residents to weigh in, but that such a hearing hadn’t been determined or scheduled as of Thursday.

It’s unlikely that a vote on the nomination will take place next week during council’s regular meeting. And if members decide to hold a public hearing, the vote will be delayed even further.

But there was no indication Thursday that any member present for the hearing would vote against Scirotto’s nomination. Councilors Dan Lavelle and Ricky Burgess did not attend Thursday.

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.