In reversal, Pittsburgh police get OK for South Side impact squads

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A few details remain to be worked out, but the proposed weekend impact squads to increase police patrols in the South Side entertainment district are back on track to begin next month.

Last week, Pittsburgh public safety director Michael Huss said he wouldn't approve the squads -- which will match off-duty officers working private security details with on-duty officers -- because of internal problems with how the police department handled money paid for private duty. After a meeting Friday organized by District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., Mr. Huss said he agreed to allow the special patrols to begin May 17 while he revamps the private-duty system.

"We made good progress. We have some details to work out," said Mr. Huss, who said he didn't see any reason why those details won't be worked out in time to start the patrols.

Mr. Zappala said he called the meeting with public safety officials, bar owners and neighborhood groups to discuss a number of issues, but he was particularly concerned about off-duty officers working the entertainment district without supervision during an emergency. The off-duty security officers stand at the door of the bar employing them and leave only if they see a serious situation elsewhere on the street.

Under the proposed system, 20 off-duty officers who currently work as private security officers at South Side bars will be teamed with on-duty officers in three-member teams to patrol two- or three-block areas on East Carson Street between 10th and 24th streets, including parallel streets on each side of East Carson. They will be supervised by two or three sergeants and a lieutenant under Cmdr. Catherine McNeilly, who is in charge of Zone 3.

The program would operate Fridays and Saturdays likely through October.

"What I wanted was to see it happen last weekend, but the public safety department, understandably, is concerned about getting ready for the Pittsburgh Marathon [on May 5]," Mr. Zappala said.

Councilman Bruce Kraus, whose district includes the South Side, said it was important for the extra policing effort to proceed because of momentum created by police and code enforcement blitzes that began in January.

"We didn't want to lose the traction that was created through the enforcement effort," said Mr. Kraus, who praised Mr. Zappala for taking a direct interest in neighborhood concerns.

The patrol project was developed after a series of meetings coordinated by the Responsible Hospitality Institute, which was hired by the city under a $100,000 contract to help improve relations among bar owners, patrons and residents on the South Side. They were ready to announce the project last week before Mr. Huss nixed it.

"I think public safety was under the impression we were shooting from the hip on this and didn't realize it was something we had been working on for some time," Cmdr. McNeilly said. "Once everyone explained what we want to do, he was willing to let us go ahead with this for a few weeks."

At the beginning, the private-duty officers assigned to the patrols will be selected from a pool of about 100 officers who have been working there for more than five years, the commander said. That could change once Mr. Huss finishes his revamping of the private-duty system.

The South Side Bar and Restaurant Association, which is expected to approve the concept Wednesday, has committed more than $250,000 to the impact squads. The association expects the extra patrols to help eliminate some of the complaints from residents who say the bars provide security to protect their property but don't do anything to deter patrons who cause damage or urinate on private property.

"I'm happy that we were all able to get together to come up with a plan that will benefit all South Side residents," said Mike Papariella, president of the bar and restaurant group.

Cmdr. McNeilly said the commitment from the bars shows they have bought into the Sociable City Plan developed by the hospitality institute.

"Now the bar owners realize that their responsibility goes beyond the bar staff to the neighborhood," she said. "They are willing to share their resources with the entire neighborhood.

"The safer the whole area is, the more people want to frequent the area. That's what we are all striving for."

The hospitality institute provided additional training last week for inside security officers and is working on programs to promote safe partying and establish remote parking for patrons and employees.

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Ed Blazina: eblazina@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1470.


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