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Pittsburgh launches new diversion program for repeat low-level offenders

City leaders stand around a podium to announce a new police initiative.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Public Safety officials gathered a press conference Thursday to announce the launch of the city's LEAD program.

Pittsburgh has launched a new diversion program aimed at directing repeat low-level offenders away from the justice system and toward supportive resources. Mayor Ed Gainey announced Thursday that the city will use its “Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion” program as a tool to reduce “unnecessary justice system involvement.”

The city also announced a change to its handling of burglar alarms, a move officials said would result in more efficient use of on-duty officers.

The city first began exploring the LEAD initiative — which exists in more than 70 other cities — in 2019. But at a press conference with public safety officials, Gainey said the city has been working to launch a LEAD program as part of his “Plan for Peace” since 2021.

“When we unveiled the Pittsburgh Plan for Peace, we talked about the need to create high-quality diversionary programs and opportunities for those at risk [of] falling into a life of violence," Gainey said.

The program applies to a list of so-called “divertable crimes” for which the accused could be given a chance to seek rehabilitation services or other support instead of facing criminal charges. The list of offenses includes retail theft, simple possession, possession of paraphernalia, prostitution, public intoxication, disorderly conduct and various levels of trespassing.

Officials argue these offenses are often the result of extreme poverty, mental illness or substance use disorder. If applied correctly, the LEAD program could reduce the number of people repeatedly entering the criminal justice system for low-level offenses.

“There are people experiencing poverty, homelessness [and] drug substance use disorder that need help more than they need incarceration,” said Public Safety Director Lee Schmidt. “Low-level infractions like shoplifting [and] nuisance calls [are] typically a cry for help and a cry for support.”

Police officers can divert an individual to the LEAD program at their discretion in parts of town where the initiative is in place. The program will start in zone 1 — which includes the city’s northern neighborhoods — and zone 2 — which includes Downtown, the Hill and Strip District and Lawrenceville.

Officers will connect individuals to a case manager, who will help them navigate support systems and set goals to prevent an individual from re-offending. Officials said those goals could range from securing a job or housing to entering drug treatment.

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The program soft-launched about three weeks ago in those zones, according to the city’s Office of Community Health and Safety. During that time, 15 people have been assigned case managers instead of receiving citations or being taken into custody.

According to OCHS director Camila Alarcon, one person in the LEAD program was cited 15 times in one day for various offenses. But since he began working with a case manager three weeks ago, Alarcon said, he hasn’t received any citations.

“The case manager is an advocate for people who have completely been excluded and marginalized” from society, Alarcon said. “It started with basically a cup of coffee and a conversation. It then evolved into a pair of shoes, some clothes [and] just giving back the person dignity.”

Officials argued the program will reduce court costs and crime by intervening in the lives of those who need resources the justice system is not equipped to provide.

The city hired three case managers with support from the state’s opioid settlement fund. Alarcon announced the city will receive additional support through Senator Bob Casey’s office in the coming weeks to hire additional case managers.

Alarcon said her office hopes to expand the program into police zones 3 and 5 by the end of this year. The city plans to eventually roll out the program in all six zones.

Police to de-prioritize response to 'unverified' alarms

Also on Thursday, Pittsburgh’s Bureau of Police announced changes to the way the city responds to burglary alarms. In a statement, the city said it will de-prioritize “unverified” calls for an alarm after an internal audit found that fewer than 1% of those calls generated a police report.

City data indicated that of the 39 incidents that generated a police report in 2023, only six involved a verified alarm with a break-in occurring. The remaining reports from burglar alarms stemmed from incidents of vandalism.

Scirotto stressed to reporters Thursday that the city will still respond to all burglary calls, but those unverified by a home or business owner or an Allegheny County dispatcher will be put into a queue until an officer is available.

Medical, panic and hold-up alarms will still be prioritized.

Scirotto described the changes as a move toward efficiency. He said nearly 9,100 calls last year for burglar alarms accounted for 4,166 police staff hours. Considering there was a 99% chance that an alarm response call would not result in a police report, Scirotto said, an immediate response is “not a cost-effective or productive use of officers’ time.”

Scirotto dismissed the notion that the changes were also prompted by a well-known staffing shortage in the police bureau,

The city currently employs 763 of the 850 officers it’s budgeted to have. But even if the bureau was fully staffed, Scirotto said he “would still stand by this strategy… because we should have been doing it a decade ago.

“We have an obligation to do better with our personnel and our resources,” he said, ”regardless of whether we are facing manpower issues.”

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.