Pittsburgh crime-reduction program headed for review

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Although a pending request to authorize $150,000 for a 5-year-old city crime-fighting initiative is likely to be passed today by Pittsburgh City Council, Mayor Bill Peduto is planning an overall review of the program and at least one council member is openly questioning its effectiveness.

The Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime, launched in 2009, is seeking council approval for a $150,000 professional services agreement with Goodwill of Southwestern Pennsylvania that city public safety spokeswoman Sonya Toler said is related to providing job skills, coaching and connections to individuals at risk of becoming victims or perpetrators of violent crime.

The proposal passed council's standing committee last week, although not without some resistance.

“I have been questioning the effectiveness of the program for quite some time,” Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith said in an interview, adding that she recorded six shootings in three weeks in her West End-centered district. “There was no response from PIRC … that I’m aware of.”

Ms. Kail-Smith, the lone vote against the resolution, said she would prefer to see city money go to neighborhood groups currently operating on a volunteer basis and producing better results.

There were 46 killings in the city last year, up from 40 in 2012 and 43 in 2011 although down from the 57 recorded in 2010. For the 10-year span beginning in 2001, homicides peaked at 74 in 2008 before falling to 40 the year after.

“There’s still a tremendous amount of violence in the city and I don’t see a lot of results from the program,” Ms. Kail-Smith said.

Councilman Ricky Burgess, who along with former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl helped roll out PIRC in late 2008, said Mr. Peduto’s administration is expected to create a new version that will be shaped by the new police chief.

In an interview, Mr. Burgess said that the program has had “varying levels of success” but that it was time for a reassessment.

“I agree with the mayor’s office that it’s time to take a hard look at it and perhaps retool it,” he said. “I've offered the mayor my help and whatever resources I can to help retool it and make it a better program.”

Tim McNulty, the mayor’s spokesman, said the review of PIRC is “part of the overall overhaul of Public Safety.”

Mr. Peduto hired former state trooper and FBI special agent Stephen Bucar as his new public safety director in May and is soliciting community input this summer on the search for a new police chief, which is expected to be finished after Labor Day.

The mayor, Mr. McNulty said, “wants to find new ways for [PIRC] to support community engagement with police.”

PIRC, based on the “Ceasefire” model developed for Boston by David Kennedy, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, attempts to target group and gang violence by staging “call-ins,” a meeting of police, influential community members and offenders.

Though the initiative was announced by Mr. Ravenstahl in September 2008 and received $200,000 in city funding four months later, the first call-in didn’t take place until July 2010, according to a timeline on PIRC's website.

In 2011, the program’s concept and execution were also the subject of a critical report by University of Pittsburgh researchers, who found Pittsburgh police focused too narrowly on gang violence and not enough on other groups.

Through a spokeswoman, Jay Gilmer, PIRC coordinator, declined to speak about the program until after today’‍s council meeting.

However, in a memo sent to council members, Mr. Gilmer said Goodwill has been “outstanding at enabling willing participants to stay out of trouble.”

Of the 74 people referred to Goodwill for services between July 1, 2013, and June 20, 2014, Mr. Gilmer wrote, half were actively pursuing a “service plan,” either employment, treatment, education or job training.

Robert Zullo: rzullo@post-gazette.com, 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @rczullo.

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