New Pittsburgh public safety director says police must repair community relationships

Stephen Bucar had him at “hello.”

City Council President Bruce Kraus’ remark at the end of a nearly three-hour confirmation hearing Wednesday for Mr. Bucar, the city’s acting public safety director, capped a session that was less an interview-style grilling and more a chance for council members to air a litany of concerns about the city’s police, fire, EMS, building inspection and animal control departments, which will come under Mr. Bucar’s permanent purview when he is approved during a council vote Tuesday that is expected to be unanimous.

“He’s such a pleasant and personable guy,” Mr. Kraus said of the 54-year-old Washington County native, a former FBI special agent and Pennsylvania state trooper. “To me, he’s the complete package.”

Mr. Bucar, who takes the helm of a police department that saw its former chief sent to federal prison this year, called Pittsburgh part of his heritage and said he wouldn’t have taken the job, given the challenges facing the public safety department, if it were in another city.

“I’m here because I want to be here. I am committed to making it better than I found it. I will try my best to do it,” he said.

He fielded inquiries and lengthy commentary from council members on a wide range of issues, including cutting the city’s homicide rate, improving the police department’s relationship with the community, the search for a new police chief, battling blight, providing information to neighborhood watch groups and offering more evening programs for wayward teens, among others.

Mr. Bucar acknowledged low morale at the police bureau, which he called a “very professional organization” though one in which a “small number of bad seeds” get all the publicity.

“It taints and paints with a broad brush,” he said, adding that public perception of officers affects their work.

The way forward, he said, is to build leadership that instills respect in the rank and file, and a new chief who not only can inspire officers but successfully reach out to communities that have seen a deteriorating relationship with the department.

“It can’t be somebody who hasn’t earned that respect by being in law enforcement for a number of years,” he said. “I have to build that trust and I have to be confident that my police chief shares that interest in drilling down in those communities that don’t trust the police.”

Councilman Ricky Burgess pulled no punches in his assessment of the police, saying the department had flatly refused to fully implement the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime, a 4-year-old local version of a violence-intervention program that has seen success in other cities and one that Mayor Bill Peduto and Mr. Bucar say they want to revamp.

“I’m no longer going to be quiet watching bodies hit the street knowing we can do something about it,” Mr. Burgess said, adding that the department and certain communities are engaged in a cycle of mistrust and enmity. “We know how to stop it. The question is, will we do the work?”

Mr. Burgess also called for the police chief to be an outside hire with experience in data-driven policing tactics as well as one who embraces treating all people the police encounter, even perpetrators, with “unconditional respect,” adding that the department’s highest priority should be being “legitimate in the eyes of the community.”

Mr. Bucar said he saw anger and frustration with the city police firsthand during recent community meetings and was in total agreement with Mr. Burgess, adding that he had reassigned a police officer to serve as a liaison to PIRC and would be taking an “honest look” at the program.

“If the police department isn’t engaged, they will become engaged,” he said.

Mr. Bucar would not take questions after the hearing. Public safety spokeswoman Sonya Toler said acting police Chief Regina McDonald does think certain aspects of the PIRC program “are not implementable,” though the department is already performing the data-collection functions that it outlines.

“I cannot discuss what happened in a previous administration,” she said. “This administration is going to try to make PIRC work.”

Robert Zullo: or 412-263-3909. Twitter:@rczullo. First Published July 23, 2014 10:59 PM

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