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Rockey rolls out public safety agenda ... and police endorsements

Republican Allegheny County Executive candidate Joe Rockey speaks while flanked by local law-enforcement union leaders on July 27, 2023.
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Republican Allegheny County Executive candidate Joe Rockey speaks while flanked by local law-enforcement union leaders on July 27, 2023.

Joe Rockey, the Republican candidate for Allegheny County Executive, rolled out a public safety platform at a police union local’s central office Thursday morning. And he showcased a different base of support from Democratic rival Sara Innamorato, even as her campaign suggested that he cribbed some of his policies from her.

At a West Homestead police union hall, Rockey received the backing from two area police unions — Fraternal Order of Police locals 1 and 91 — as well as the union that represents guards at the Allegheny County Jail.

“We need the right person in the county executive office,” said Local 91 president Vincent DiCenzo, Jr. “We don't need somebody that's going to be against police, defund the police. … We need a county executive that's going to stand for law enforcement.”

“For Allegheny County to thrive, it is imperative that we are safe. It is imperative that public safety be taken care of,” Rockey said by way of thanks. “These men and women behind me and all of the ones they represent are the backbone of making that happen.”

The occasion also served as the rollout of Rockey’s public safety plan, which included a number of proposals.

The first, Rocky said, was to improve conditions at the county jail, “It goes without saying that the county jail is broken,” said Rockey citing a number of deaths in the facility people over the past two-and-a-half years.

As other candidates have done throughout this year’s campaign, Rockey pledged to attend Jail Oversight Board meetings in person, a responsibility current County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has delegated to others. Rockey also complained, however, that the board “spends more time making political points than actually solving the problems,” a seeming reference to board member Bethany Hallam, who has sharply criticized jail management and is, like Innamorato, a progressive Democrat.

In addition to hiring more staff at the jail, Rockey said he would seek to grow the county’s police force by 20 positions, or 10 percent of its current force. County police sometimes fill in for major crime investigations or other law enforcement needs that local police can’t handle: Rockey said the new recruits would “create capacity in the county police force to support those other municipalities” that lack sufficient resources.

Rockey also pledged to open a juvenile detention facility to replace the now-shuttered Shuman Center. “It is imperative to give our judges the opportunity to give somebody a place to go that isn't putting an ankle bracelet on them and sending them back to the same environment,” he said. He emphasized, however, that he wanted such a center to provide social support so that those inside “come out with an opportunity to have a brighter future.”

Rockey also said he would develop plans for what his agenda calls a “comprehensive mental health evaluation and care program designed to reduce crime and provide more support to those in need.” And he pledged that victims and their representatives would have input on all those policies.

Law enforcement officials liked what they heard. The former superintendent of county police, Coleman McDonough, said “Allegheny County faces a turning point in November. We can either emulate the failed liberal experiments in public safety that we've seen across the country … or we can return to good government, common sense leadership and support for our police and our other public safety entities.”

Innamorato, the Democrat, has received the backing of a number of groups who back a criminal-justice reform agenda. Her “Justice for All” platform calls for a number of reforms popular on the left, like increasing the budget allocation to the public defender’s office, and expanding the use of “restorative justice” approaches that focus less on punitive measures than on actions that can undo damage done by a perpetrator.

But while the candidates have outlined some of their criminal-justice proposals only in broad strokes, they at times touch on common themes.

Both agree, for example, that there needs to be more investment in mental health services inside and outside the jail. Rockey's policy calls for "expand[ing] treatment to members of society who have been abandoned," and nods toward including social-service providers in crime policy, while Innamorato urges "adding qualified experts, like mental health professionals and social workers to our current system."

Innamorato's juvenile justice platform emphasizes the creation of “trauma informed, youth-focused centers that prioritize reconnection to community and reunification with family.” While Rockey's policy focuses more on the need to detain juveniles charged with violent crimes, it also decries "a significant racial disparity within the juvenile justice system," it says "the emphasis will be on the added rehabilitation services the county will offer while keeping violent offenders off the streets."

Innamorato’s campaign, in fact, argued Thursday that Rockey was “parroting these proposals” in a way that “proves that investing in our communities and the wrap-around support services they deserve are widely popular.”

"Sara Innamorato has been leading the charge to take a comprehensive public health approach to public safety,” her campaign said in a statement. Innamorato, it said, would “ensure that everyone in Allegheny County is part of the conversation regarding how we build a safe, thriving region for all.”

Corrected: July 28, 2023 at 10:42 AM EDT
This story was updated at a10:42 a.m. on Friday, July 28, 2023 to remove an erroneous count of deaths in the Allegheny County Jail.
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.