Professor: Lack of cooperation marred success of Pittsburgh crime-fighting initiative

It was one of the most embarrassing moments of David Kennedy’s career.

Mr. Kennedy, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York who has spent two decades studying crime and policing and worked with hundreds of departments across the country, was brought to Pittsburgh in 2008 by then-Mayor Luke Ravenstahl to help launch an initiative that has been credited with stemming killings in Cincinnati, Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia and elsewhere.

“It is the most effective intervention with respect to gun violence or homicide that we have in any portfolio,” said Mr. Kennedy, also an author and co-chairman of the National Network for Safe Communities, an initiative of John Jay’s Center for Crime Prevention and Control. “This works better than everything.”

Part of implementing the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime — a combination of outreach to gangs and other violent groups, a swift police crackdown on group members when shootings happen and the provision of social and job-related services to offer members a way out — required mining the knowledge of veteran street officers to identify the people most likely to become victims or perpetrators of shootings.

A team from the University of Cincinnati was brought in to spend a few days with those police officers to map out the city’s violence-prone populations, but the team was sent packing in short order after the police refused to share information, Mr. Kennedy said.

“I set this thing up and wound up with my face planted in the mud,” he said, calling it an unprecedented level of resistance that command-level officers orchestrated.

A 2011 city-commissioned report on PIRC that the University of Pittsburgh conducted also found the police largely ignored the Cincinnati academics’ research, which identified 35 “violent groups” in Pittsburgh and determined 69 percent of the city’s homicides from 2007 to early 2010 were “group-related.”

“The Pittsburgh police department was absolutely the most condescending and aggressively uncooperative agency I have encountered,” he said. “They would not share information; they would not provide information. They would not allow any outsiders in.”

It made no difference that PIRC was a mayoral initiative with hundreds of thousands of dollars in city council funding.

“They actively rejected it and made no secret of that,” Mr. Kennedy said. “My read on this was the police bureau saying, ‘City Hall is trying to tell us what to do, and we’re not going to do it.’ And they won that fight.”

Not long after, Mr. Kennedy gave up.

“I said to them, ‘This is a sham. I’m not going to be involved in it anymore,’ ” he said.

Ever since, PIRC has failed to fulfill its potential to reduce the number of bodies hitting city streets, though it has had some success in connecting people with job services and education, said City Councilman Ricky Burgess, who helped bring the program to the city.

“We’re losing lives because the police do not want to make preventing homicides by gaining community confidence its primary concern,” he said, noting that the Allegheny County Department of Human Services embraced many of the same principles Mr. Kennedy promoted in a June report. “We need a philosophical change in the way the city of Pittsburgh police operates.”

Two weeks ago, Mayor Bill Peduto, who was elected last year, and his new public safety director, former Pennsylvania state trooper and FBI special agent Stephen Bucar, were flanked by acting police Chief Regina McDonald at a news conference to address a spike in killings.

With more than four months left in 2014, there had been 44 homicides in the city as of Sunday, nearly as many as all of 2013, when there were 46. That was up from 40 in 2012 and 43 in 2011, though 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 a year later.

PIRC was barely mentioned during the news conference, during which most of the focus was on 13 new officers assigned to walk beats in Homewood and other East End neighborhoods, three more detectives moving to the bureau’s homicide division and the role of the community in reporting crime and coming forward as witnesses.

“We’re doing everything we can to address this increase in homicides,” Chief McDonald said. Asked about crime-prevention strategies, she referenced the DARE program and a police summer day camp.

Sonya Toler, the city’s public safety spokeswoman, refused requests to interview Chief McDonald, former Public Safety Director Mike Huss, who remains on the city payroll, and Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson about PIRC.

Jay Gilmer, PIRC’s civilian coordinator and sole employee, who is paid about $49,000 a year, referred all questions to Ms. Toler, who said some of the past friction was the result of restrictions on sharing information outside of law enforcement circles.

She said while it “may be true” that police resistance stifled PIRC’s effectiveness, dwelling on the past won’t make the program better in the future.

“We see value in that program, and so we need to make it work,” she said. “It’s not about pointing fingers; it’s about making the program work. ... The next police chief will be working with the public safety director to make sure PIRC is successful.

“That’s why we don’t want to talk about what happened when many of us weren’t around. It doesn’t matter what didn’t happen. We don’t want to see it fail. We don’t want to see the community jaded by talk of things people didn’t do in the past.”

PIRC has a budget of about $350,000 a year, and last month, the council approved a $150,000 contract with Goodwill of Southwestern Pennsylvania to provide job-training, employment and education services. Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith refused to support it, saying there had been no response to a recent spate of shootings in her district and suggesting local community groups could do a better job.

The mayor and Mr. Bucar have said they favor revamping PIRC, with Mr. Bucar pledging during his council confirmation hearing that the police “will become engaged” in the program.

Mr. Bucar has assigned Officer Michelle Auge to be his liaison to the police bureau, which will include PIRC work, in a move that is already yielding results, Ms. Toler said.

In an interview earlier this month, the mayor said PIRC and other “counter-insurgency” strategies will be integral to a more comprehensive look at breaking cycles of violence and providing more opportunities in the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

“PIRC has the capacity to basically spearhead those efforts and to give people more of a trust within policing in their own neighborhoods,” he said. “I want to see this program expand so it has an opportunity to both utilize information from the public to go after the bad guys while also providing people another path in life other than a life of crime.”

Ms. Toler said Mr. Bucar wants to increase community involvement in PIRC by possibly incorporating ex-offenders and athletes into programming, though she cautioned the program that emerges will be a “hybrid” that won’t necessarily look exactly like what Mr. Kennedy and others tried to implement nearly six years ago.

Whatever happens, the existing Pittsburgh program needs more than a tweak, Mr. Kennedy said.

“They need to blow it up and start all over again,” he said.

“PIRC did not fail because it won’t work in Pittsburgh. PIRC failed because the police bureau failed to let it succeed.”

Robert Zullo: rzullo@post-gazette or 412-263-3909.

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