DA says Allegheny County isn't doing enough on drug front

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Tuesday night, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. threw the county police under the proverbial bus, telling county council the force isn't doing enough to fight drugs in the region.

County leaders fired back Wednesday, saying Mr. Zappala is mistaken about his numbers -- and perhaps about his job description.

"He's a prosecutor. That's his primary job," said Jennifer Liptak, chief of staff to Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. "We don't showboat. We do our work. To say we're not doing our job ... we're not criticizing his prosecutorial record."

At Tuesday's budget hearing, Mr. Zappala asked for $474,000 to start an impact task force targeting violent crime and narcotics, saying previous alliances with local police departments have been successful in cleaning up neighborhoods in Braddock and elsewhere.

In making his pitch, he questioned whether the county police remained committed to fighting the drug trade, saying they've made fewer than 300 felony arrests over the past 45 months.

By comparison, a narcotics team under his control has made 160 arrests just in the past few months, he said. With a what-can-you-do shrug, Mr. Zappala told council he believes the county force has gotten out of the drug fight.

"I am concerned that county police are doing much less narcotics work," he told council. "Someone is making a decision I don't understand."

Mr. Zappala's testimony raised a few eyebrows on council, sparking a conversation that lasted more than an hour. Several members spoke approvingly of reviving the task force, which Mr. Zappala said could begin its work within five months and would require him to hire five new detectives.

Later in the evening, Allegheny County police Superintendent Charles Moffatt said there had been no change in policy within the narcotics division, admitting bemusedly that he didn't know from where Mr. Zappala was getting his numbers.

On Wednesday, Mr. Fitzgerald's staff threw their support behind the county police, bringing up the afternoon shooting at Brashear High School as an example of their competence and necessity.

"The city police called upon our county police to respond," county Manager William McKain told council at Thursday night's budget hearing. "There were injured children, and our officers responded to that ... the county police do a wonderful job."

County officers have investigated 189 drug cases this year and have made 106 arrests, Mr. McKain said. Last year, they made 136 arrests; in 2011, 128. Those numbers don't include arrests made in collaboration with the FBI or federal Drug Enforcement Administration, the county manager said.

Mr. Fitzgerald has proposed giving Mr. Zappala's department $15.8 million in 2014. The administration said the district attorney has plenty of other funds to use if he wants to build a drug-fighting team, including money from forfeiture auctions.

Mr. Zappala asked Mr. Fitzgerald for $16.4 million; county council has proposed giving him $16.1 million. The district attorney never brought up hiring new detectives in his proposal, Mr. Fitzgerald's staff said.

On Wednesday, Mr. Zappala stayed out of the fight, sticking by his statement the night before.

"He made the presentation, and let's let things play out a bit," spokesman Michael Manko said. "We could do a war of words for the next 10 days."

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