Downtown police presence increasing, now supplemented by County officers

On Jan. 31st, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald offered to send county police to support the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police (PBP) in their patrols of Downtown. On Monday, Feb. 6 these plans were confirmed by Christopher Kearns, Superintendent of Allegheny County Police, meaning there is a joint effort between city and county police to patrol Downtown Pittsburgh.

This Thursday, Feb 9., Mayor Ed Gainey held a town hall on the details of this new plan. The goal is to increase the number of police officers in Downtown, which is also colloquially known as the Golden Triangle. Currently, the number of cops on-duty in the Golden Triangle is anywhere from three to 10; Gainey promises to increase this to 18 by the end of March.

However, Gainey also described his hope to address these concerns via several non-traditional means. He has expressed opposition to police sweeps of those living on the streets, arguing, “People say you should just put them in jail, lock them up. For what?” He pointed to his administration's efforts to increase affordable housing Downtown to address the overcrowded Second Avenue Commons shelter, one of only five all-gender homeless shelters in the city and the only one in Downtown.

The impetus for this change is a growing concern among business owners who worry that the perceived increase in violent crime will drive away business. The Downtown Neighbor's Alliance (DNA) is a nonprofit organization whose members represent business owners in the Golden Triangle. According to the Post-Gazette, John Valentine, executive director of the DNA, supports this increase in policing.

Residents of Downtown point to a number of recent criminal incidents. On Jan. 19, a man was shot and killed during an altercation near Liberty Ave and Wood St, and on Jan. 29 shots were fired near Sixth Ave. and Smithfield St. Nearby property was damaged, including a shattered window at the Omni William Penn Hotel, but nobody was injured.

Residents and business owners have been expressing concern about the increase in crime as early as October last year, after a man was shot and killed in an alley off Fort Duquesne Blvd. However, crime statistics provided by Allegheny county indicate that several categories of crime, including assault, burglary, and disorderly conduct, have been decreasing in the city for several years. The notable exception is criminal homicide — 56 offenses of which were counted in 2022 (the highest since 2014). Whether this string of recent shootings in Downtown reflects a larger trend remains to be seen. However, the immediate effect of this perceived crime wave is a desire for increased police presence by residents and businesses owners.

Business owners on the South Side echoed similar concerned; multiple spoke in front of state legislators from the House Democratic Policy Committee this past Wednesday, Feb. 8. They were primarily concerned by the increasing number of underage teenagers drinking and loitering on E. Carson Street, the main commercial artery of the South Side and an extremely liquor-license dense region of the city. However, Acting Deputy Chief of the Pittsburgh Public Safety Department Linda Rosato-Barone noted that crime has actually been decreasing in the neighborhood.

This change in policing has drawn criticism, with some comparing this "saturation policing" to "hotspot policing," the tactic used by the Memphis Police Department — a unit of Memphis "hotspot" police were responsible for the death of Tyre Nichols. The Pittsburgh Police Bureau denies this comparison, and vows that no such specialized units will exist in the city. David Weisburg, a professor at George Mason University who specialized in crime-prevention policy claims that saturating an entire neighborhood is not an efficient prevention strategy.

As of now, Mayor Gainey's administration promises that this increase in policing will be accompanied by other measures that seek to reduce crime. In fact, Gainey ran on a platform that included "Redirecting Resources" and "Demilitarizing the police equipment and training." This increase in policing, though welcome by businesses owners, remains troubling for those who advocate for alternative strategies.