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Pittsburgh Police preparing to launch a proactive "street crimes" patrol unit

Pittsburgh Police Chief Larry Scirotto stands at a podium next to Public Safety Director Lee Schmidt
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh Police Chief Larry Scirotto at a press conference in July.

Pittsburgh’s Bureau of Police is preparing to launch a new patrol unit dedicated to the city’s most violent areas. According to Pittsburgh Police Chief Larry Scirotto, the new “Street Crimes Unit” will begin patrols in January focused on violent hotspots with “known offenders.”

Similar dedicated units that use intelligence to prevent crimes from taking place have come under fire for fostering discriminatory and abusive practices. Five members of one such unit in Memphis were charged in the January beating death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols.

But Scirotto claimed Pittsburgh’s unit won’t be allowed to fall into that pattern.

“It can be done with the appropriate training, the appropriate selection of personnel and the appropriate oversight,” Scirotto told City Council during a Thursday budget hearing for the Department of Public Safety.

As Pittsburgh sharpens its public safety focus on reducing gun violence, Scirotto said that mission will be the primary charge of the unit, which will include 18 officers and two supervisors. Though officers will follow trends citywide, Scirotto said the unit will target areas with the highest rates of gun violence.

“They will focus on those individuals that are causing the greatest harm to our city,” Scirotto said.

Scirotto answered a list of questions about the street crimes unit during council’s proceedings Thursday. While the city has several violence intervention initiatives staffed by civilians, the chief painted the new unit as the “enforcement” arm of the bureau’s strategy.

“The first part is community outreach, and that is the preferred method of engagement,” Scirotto said. “[When] those other opportunities to stop that behavior fail … there has to be an enforcement side. And that’s what this unit focuses on.”

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Street crimes units — which are often deployed to infiltrate gangs and confiscate drugs and illegal weapons — have been heavily scrutinized nationwide after evidence of abuse and misconduct. While many similar units operate in unmarked cars and street clothes, Pittsburgh’s new squad will be uniformed, according to the Department of Public Safety.  

“This is not a jump-out squad,” Scirotto claimed, referring to a 1990s-era police tactic used to conduct undercover drug stings. He said the bureau doesn’t currently have a team dedicated to repeat gun violence offenders, and that, he said, has allowed some gun offenders to “continue to operate with impunity.”

Some news reports have raised fears about how Pittsburgh’s unit could resemble the SCORPION unit in Memphis which was notorious for excessive force. The unit — which was officially called Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods — has since disbanded in the aftermath Nichols' death.

Scirotto, who said he led a previous street crimes unit in Pittsburgh from 2008 to 2010, pledged Pittsburgh would do things differently.

The Memphis unit "just didn't have the level of oversight that is necessary,” Scirotto said. “And if you don't, then it ends up being some other Memphis Five. And that's the last thing that I intend to happen under my watch.”

Scirotto also pledged the unit would be staffed with officers who have been fully vetted and who "have been identified as some of our best. Not in just proactive policing but in temperament, in their work ethic, their conduct, their behavior."

Scirotto told WESA that officers on the unit have on average four to seven years with the bureau, and zero record of citizen complaints.

“They're well read. They're well trained. And they've acted like we would expect high-quality police officers to throughout their career up to this point,” he said.

The new street crimes unit is part of Scirotto's larger overhaul of the bureau. In 2024, the city plans to move the homicide, intelligence, narcotics and new street crimes unit into the violent crimes division. Scirotto said the change will improve collaboration between officers.

“They were very siloed,” in the current configuration, Scirotto lamented. “I didn't believe that they communicated well enough to influence or interrupt violence.”

Officers will also return to working 10-hour shifts, four days per week. Scirotto said the change was requested by some patrol officers, and would better align with periods of peak call volume.

Also during the police budget hearing, council members brought up familiar concerns about the bureau’s long-lamented staffing shortage. Mayor Ed Gainey’s 2024 budget calls for 850 officers — a reduction from 900 in previous budgets — for the next two years, while the bureau works to catch up on losses from resignations and retirements.

The cuts exist only on paper, since the bureau is currently operating with just under 800 officers anyway. Scirotto said the force would reach 817 if every member of an academy class currently being train joins the bureau. In the meantime, budgeting for a smaller number of positions will allow the city to put salary expenses toward other initiatives.

Gainey officials have pledged to bring personnel back to 900 by 2027. But Councilor Anthony Coghill expressed concern Thursday that the bureau wouldn’t be able to meet the lower staffing number either. He noted the force lost 69 officers in 2023: 43 resigned, 25 retired and one officer died. Coghill said it was worrisome that resignations accounted for most of the departures.

“It used to be the retirements far outweighed the resignations,” he said.

Scirotto said he recognizes the challenge, but was confident the city is making progress on recruitment efforts.

Still, with another 26 officers becoming eligible for retirement by the end of the year, it’s unclear where staffing numbers will be by the time the academy graduates more officers.

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.