Pittsburgh Police to Roll Out New Street Crimes Unit Next Year

Dec. 1, 2023
The 18-officer Pittsburgh police unit will operate across the city starting Jan. 1, and its "sole charge" will be to focus on repeat gun violence offenders.

In an effort to tackle gun violence in a more targeted way, Pittsburgh police will introduce a new street crimes unit starting Jan. 1.

The 18-officer unit will operate across the city and its "sole charge" will be to focus on repeat gun violence offenders, police Chief Larry Scirotto told City Council on Thursday.

"Unfortunately for our city there are enough of those individuals to keep a unit active," Mr. Scirotto said during a budget hearing. "We're focusing on people that don't follow the rules, that create harm in our community."

Chief Scirotto also tried to alleviate any concerns that the new unit might resemble the infamous and now disbanded SCORPION unit of the Memphis police department. Five of the officers in that unit were charged in September in the death of Tyre Nichols. The group was tasked with patrolling crime hotspots in the city and has been repeatedly accused of using excessive force.

"This is not a jump-out squad," Chief Scirotto said Thursday.

Properly managing a unit like this requires a "tremendous amount of oversight," Mr. Scirotto said, but the people chosen for it are "some of our best."

"It can be done with appropriate training, the appropriate selection of personnel, and the appropriate oversight," Mr. Scirotto said, noting that a lot of cities have moved away from this type of policing because "they just didn't have the level of oversight that it's necessary to maintain whatever the issue is."

"And if you don't, then it ends up being some other Memphis-five," he said, referencing the Memphis SCORPION unit. "That's the last thing that I intend to happen under my watch."

The city already has a number of violence prevention programs staffed by civilians, not police officers. This new unit will start where the work of those programs stop, Mr. Scirotto said. The violence prevention programs work with communities to stop violent crimes before they happen, but "there's going to be a time where those services just don't work," he said.

"We have to have police with enforcement powers to focus on those individuals that reject those services," he said.

The police department is also adding new community service aides — civilians hired to handle tasks that don't require a sworn officer.

If a resident calls about a burglary that already happened and the suspect has already left the scene, a community service aide could go there and safely take the initial report, freeing up officers to respond to other calls or focus on community engagement, Mr. Scirotto said.

Mr. Scirotto also told lawmakers Thursday that he's confident his department will be able to meet its budgeted number of officers in 2024. In years past, the bureau had budgeted for 900 officers. But staffing has fallen short of that mark, and officials decided this year to only budget for 850 officers so money could be freed up for other public safety priorities.

There are 799 sworn officers in Pittsburgh, plus another 18 going through the recruiting process, Mr. Scirotto said.

"We're one class away [from 850]," Mr. Scirotto said

Councilman Anthony Coghill, who has often expressed concerns about the bureau's dwindling officer ranks, seemed less confident Thursday. He suggested budgeting for about 800 officers next year.

"I don't think there's any chance you get to 850," he said, noting that resignations and retirements still need to be factored in.

So far in 2023, there were 43 resignations and 25 retirements, Mr. Coghill said. There is still the potential for 26 more retirements through the end of this year, according to Mr. Scirotto.

Mr. Scirotto said he shares Mr. Coghill's concerns but still believes the bureau can meet the 850-officer target in 2024. The bureau has already started preparing for three new police classes in 2024, the first of which will begin in May.

In an effort to help limit the number of recruits who leave the program, the bureau will start assigning mentors to recruits before they begin training, "to make sure we get them to the end," Mr. Scirotto said.

Some of the challenges in retaining officers starts with the recruitment classes. For this current class, which has 18 candidates in it, the department contacted 150 possible candidates. Of those, 100 failed the physical fitness test, Mr. Scirotto said.

Police are also trying to recruit people directly from service academies, which reduces the amount of training they have to go through with the city before they can be out on the streets.

Other initiatives the police department hopes to implement in 2024 include a renewed focus on officer wellness.


(c)2023 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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