Officials seek to derail rise in homicides

Drugs a common thread, police say

Lavar Rich was shot, his family said, while walking his beloved dog in Homewood. Tyrone Tomman was killed following an argument at a Strip District bar. Maurice Freeman was shot in the chest, capping off a week of violence in Northview Heights.

Those three men, Pittsburgh officials said Monday, are among 44 killed during an “uptick” in homicides in the city. That’s two shy of the number recorded in all of last year. And city officials said they hope to derail the trend before this year’s numbers approach a record set in 1993, when Pittsburgh marked 83 homicides as police struggled to solve gang- and drug-related deaths.

“One thing that we’ve been looking at is what’s causing the trend,” Pittsburgh public safety director Stephen Bucar said at a morning news conference. “To be honest, most of it’s going to be speculation.”

There are many motives that factor into homicides. A shooting Saturday outside a Strip District bar, for example, seems to have followed an argument between members of a motorcycle club and a group of North Side residents who complained about noise, police said.

But many follow one pattern. “Based on the types of cases that police have been working and the types of crimes in those neighborhoods … it seems to revolve around the drug trade,” Mr. Bucar said of the increase. “A lot of this violence is being perpetrated by those who are competing with each other.”

So in the coming days, officials said, some Pittsburgh residents might see changes in their neighborhoods.

In the long term, Pittsburgh police said they hope partnering with federal and county agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives and state and county probation and parole agencies, among others, will help reduce drug-related violence.

In the short-term, the police bureau will send 13 officers who graduated last week from the training academy to walk the streets in the area covered by the Zone 5 station in Highland Park. That station has recorded more homicides than others in the city, marking 17 so far this year.

“The idea is for them to get to know the community, and the community to get to know the police,” Acting Chief Regina McDonald said.

Three additional people have been assigned to the homicide division, which has solved 18 of the 44 killings so far this year, she said.

Following two fatal shootings near a Northview Heights housing complex last week, the bureau authorized overtime for some officers and coordinated with the housing authority to increase security there. Those two killings were both drug-related but were not related to one another, Chief McDonald said.

A third body -- that of James Nelson, 33, of Central Northside -- was found behind Buildings 40 and 41 in the Northview Heights complex Sunday night, but officials said Monday they were waiting for the results of toxicology tests before ruling on the cause and manner of his death.

The increased police presence is a start, one community leader said, but not a complete solution to the problem.

“If you want to try to put your hand or finger on one thing, I would think that we need to begin to talk about how we can really being to invest in the infrastructure of those zip codes where we see high incidents of violence,” said Rashad Byrdsong, CEO of the Community Empowerment Association.

Mr. Byrdsong said he would like to see, among other changes, more funding for programs aimed at helping people find employment and providing recreation for children. “It’s an economic issue,” he said.

In the meantime, he said, the families of the homicide victims “are going through a lot of emotional distress … looking at the visuals and the make-shift memorials in the communities and the prayers, that still isn’t enough.”

The day after Jon Menefee learned that his son, Mr. Rich, had been shot while visiting his girlfriend’s family in Homewood, he remembered his son as a devoted father who was making efforts to improve his life after an arrest.

But the pleasant memories didn’t make the pain disappear.

“It’s rough trying to make arrangements for your 23-year-old son,” Mr. Menefee said shortly after Mr. Rich’s death July 13.

Mr. Bucar acknowledged Monday that long-term plans provide little comfort to the families who have lost loved ones.

He and other city officials Monday called on residents who have information about the killings to call the city homicide squad at 412-323-7161 or CrimeStoppers at 412-255-TIPS. They said callers can remain anonymous if they’d like, and the city offers a witness protection program for people who are going to testify in court.

“We know people are afraid,” the chief said, “but at some point … we need to take back these communities and we need to stand together.”

Liz Navratil:, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil. First Published August 4, 2014 12:00 AM


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