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Pittsburgh extends 'ambassador' program after opening new downtown police station

Signs read "Pittsburgh Police" and "Public Safety Center" on the façade of a new police substation along Wood Street.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police opened a new substation Downtown Wednesday.

Update on March 5, 2024: Pittsburgh City Council approved a $600,000 contract extension to keep the Downtown Ambassador program for another year Tuesday. Public Safety officials told council members they hope to continue the funding beyond that in the future.

Original story published Feb. 21, 2024:

Flanked by police brass and downtown stakeholders, Mayor Ed Gainey opened an expanded police substation along Wood Street Wednesday — part of a broader investment to address lingering safety concerns in the city's Golden Triangle.

The new facility, a few blocks from the old substation, will support the public safety strategy of Zone 2 police downtown.

Gainey described the location as proof he was keeping a promise to deliver more public safety resources downtown. The area was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and perceived declines in public safety.

“I told everybody when it was my budget that we would increase policing downtown,” Gainey said Tuesday.

The new facility is larger than the Lantern Building, which has served as the second home for Zone 2 city police since 2017. (The division’s main facility is in the Hill District.) PNC Bank has leased three floors of the four-story building to the city: one for community outreach and meeting space and one for detective offices, while the basement will be used for the bicycle unit and storage.

PNC workers will remain in the upper floors of the building.

“I felt proud when I saw the Pittsburgh Police sign go up on this building,” said PNC CEO Bill Demchak. “And what it means for downtown and the investment we have in downtown.”

City leaders and downtown stakeholders cut a blue ribbon to mark the opening of a new police station.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership's Jeremy Waldrup, City Public Safety Director Lee Schmidt, PNC Bank's Kevin Wade, Mayor Ed Gainey, PNC Bank's Bill Demchak, Pittsburgh Police Chief Larry Scirotto and City Councilor Bobby Wilson cut a ribbon inside the new downtown police station.

According to police officials, the downtown unit will be manned by 20 officers, including 2 sergeants and a lieutenant. The group will be overseen by Zone 2 commander Tim Novosel, and officers will work in split shifts to cover the area from from 8 a.m. to midnight seven days per week.

City leaders were joined by other downtown stakeholders including the Downtown Community Development Corporation, Visit Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. Jeremy Waldrup, CEO of the Downtown Partnership, commended the Gainey administration for boosting the local police presence.

“When [Gainey] stepped into office, he said that downtown Pittsburgh was going to be a priority of his administration in every way,” he said, calling the substation an “example of that work.”

Displayed on the building's exterior are the words “Public Safety Center,” which reflects the fact that police will be joined by teams working on related initiatives.

Those include the city’s co-response unit, its Reaching Out On The Streets initiative to help people in crisis, and the Downtown Ambassadors program, which provides assistance to visitors and others in need.

“The public safety center is not just about a police station,” said Public Safety Director Lee Schmidt. “It is about collaborating and the police being part of the community and all of our public safety folks being part of the community.”

The city is also making a more direct investment in the ambassador program.

A pilot program deployed a dozen yellow-jacketed ambassadors to help visitors navigate the area and, where needed, respond to reported opioid overdoses. And this week the Gainey administration proposed legislation to extend the program for another year. The mayor said the group has helped reset the tone of the neighborhood.

“We want to be able to greet people with that smile … give people directions, be another [set of] eyes on our street,” Gainey said.

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The bill would pay for ambassadors through 2024 at a cost of $1.2 million. According to the proposal, staffing for the program would remain the same through the second year. In a letter to council, Schmidt said the city is considering whether and how to expand the program.

Police Chief Larry Scirotto told reporters Wednesday that the ambassadors have helped to shift the safety perceptions, and drive down crime statistics.

“Perception of safety matters,” Scirotto said. Despite a 27% decrease in homicides and an 18% decrease in non-fatal shootings, he said, people won’t come back downtown unless they feel things are improving.

“You have to feel that way,” he said, and the ambassadors and outreach workers “provide us that level of visibility that otherwise we just wouldn’t have.”

Though the tone of the gathering was celebratory, leaders stressed that the city was still recovering from the challenges of the past few years.

“We have, collectively, a lot of work to do to get the city back to the place it was. [To] get it as busy as it could be,” said Demchak. “This will make a difference.”

Gainey agreed that leaders should work to provide ongoing support for the heart of the city. But he pointed to the lunchtime sidewalks bustling with people along Wood Street as evidence that downtown is on the upswing.

“We got a long way to go,” he said. But "take a look at downtown: It’s crowded."

Updated: March 5, 2024 at 4:35 PM EST
This story was updated on March 5, 2024.
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.