Police street squad hailed

Month-old trial run extended to year's end

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Steve Mellon,. Post-GazetteMembers of the Pittsburgh Police Street Response Unit make three arrests yesterday on Cedar Avenue on the city's North Side. Police recovered suspected crack cocaine, crack pipes and syringes.

A pilot program that floods high-crime areas with handpicked, uniformed officers has performed so well that Pittsburgh police officials have extended its trial run through the end of the year.

In the past month, the city police Street Response Unit has made heroin busts, arrested armed juveniles outside a high school football game, and tried to restore a sense of security in several city neighborhoods cowed by rowdy youths.

Launched in late September, the 21-member squad has won accolades from station commanders and community activists alike.

"We are absolutely thrilled," said Tony Ceoffe, executive director of Lawrenceville United, who lauded the unit for cleaning up drug dealers and riffraff at Keystone Avenue and McCandless Street.

On patrol in trouble spots all over Pittsburgh, the unit has become so sought after by the city's precincts that requests by station commanders for their services have sometimes conflicted.

As of Wednesday, the unit had made 119 arrests and seized nine guns during 18 days on the street, statistics that Assistant Chief Nathan Harper, who oversees the program, considers impressive.

Officers used force only once -- when the unit's supervisor, Sgt. Stephen Matakovich, fired his Taser stun gun at someone running from a stolen car.

Just as important as the numbers is the perception that a neighborhood, a street or even a corner is safer after the unit appears and makes arrests.

"A person looks outside their window or door or even their car driving by and sees all the uniform presence and feels safe," said Assistant Chief Harper, who is in charge of uniformed officers.

A case in point, Assistant Chief Harper said, is the Schenley Heights Market, a corner store on Bryn Mawr Road in the Hill District. Police had received complaints that groups of juveniles were loitering and breaking into abandoned properties in the area.

"People did not feel safe walking to and from the store," said Cmdr. Paul Donaldson, of the Hill District station.

Since the Street Response Unit made a brief appearance there earlier this month, things have improved, he said.

"My experience has been very positive with it, and I do believe that this is one instance where the sum is greater than the parts," Cmdr. Donaldson said. "It's more effective to send 10 officers up there for a half hour than have one officer chasing people around [all day]."

The idea for the unit came from the bottom up. In May, Sgt. Matakovich drafted a proposal to Assistant Chief Harper, his former supervisor in the defunct office of organized crime, narcotics and intelligence.

At the time, Sgt. Matakovich was assigned to the North Side station. By late April, the North Side had been the site of seven of the city's 15 homicides.

"The violence was beginning to increase, and I just felt that if I was able to get an opportunity to take a couple of officers from each zone, put them together and do what we're doing, I knew it could be effective," Sgt. Matakovich said.

Assistant Chief Harper signed off on the plan. Officers were handpicked from each of the city's five zones based on their arrest records, disciplinary history and number of complaints.

When operating at full strength, the unit has several officers working undercover, a two-person wagon, a K-9 officer, and four or five marked cruisers, each with three uniformed officers.

"I have 20 alpha dogs who are working for me," Sgt. Matakovich said, describing his eager squad. "They all want to go and they all want to do something, and they're all gung-ho."

Neither Sgt. Matakovich nor Assistant Chief Harper wants to give the impression that the Street Response Unit comprises head-bangers who flout rules and regulations. Both are aware that another specialized unit, the Impact Squad, generated citizen complaints in the early 1990s about rousting people from corners without good reason. Assistant Chief Harper, who is black, is particularly sensitive to concerns about police among Pittsburgh's African-American community.

"We're not jumping out and putting guys on the wall like you see on TV. We're just getting out and talking to people," Sgt. Matakovich said.

So far, the unit has worked in every zone, from trouble spots in Beltzhoover and Homewood to out-of-the-way neighborhoods such as Fairywood and Hazelwood, to the main business districts in Brookline.

Most of the time, Assistant Chief Harper makes assignments based on input from top police supervisors, community complaints and politicians' requests. The rest of the time, the unit is left to rove where it sees fit.

On Oct. 7, police were concerned about possible trouble at Cupples Stadium on the South Side during a football game between Perry and Oliver high schools on the North Side. Assistant Chief Harper requested the Street Response Unit.

In the course of about 30 minutes, the unit arrested six teens outside the stadium ranging from 15 to 17 years old and recovered four handguns.

"It was outstanding stuff," Pittsburgh Public Schools Police Chief Robert Fadzen said. "No one arrested attended the game. They were outside looking for trouble, and they found it with these guys."

Assistant Chief Harper was equally pleased.

"To have that many juveniles with that many weapons," he said, "they prevented possibly a tragedy occurring over there."

Sgt. Matakovich said he believes those arrests "put us on the map." Some officers had regarded the unit as "prima donnas who were going to ride around and do what we want," Sgt. Matakovich said, and some commanders were unhappy about losing some of their better officers to the handpicked squad.

But after the stadium incident, doubters within the bureau began coming around, Sgt. Matakovich said.

When the unit began operating at the end of September, its first task was to quell violence in Homewood, particularly around violence-plagued Race Street. At one point, Sgt. Matakovich said, he ran across an elderly woman and her husband. "This is the first walk we've taken in months," he said she told him.

"It makes you feel that everything we're doing is worthwhile," Sgt. Matakovich said. "Our whole purpose is to make people feel safe."

The need is ever present. The unit had been working in Homewood for only several days when five people were shot in the 7200 block of Race Street.

The shooting, which remains unsolved, happened around 7:30 p.m. The unit, which was working a noon-to-8 p.m. shift, had left the area about 6:50 p.m. and had arrived 20 minutes later at police headquarters on the North Side to complete paperwork. The shooting call came over the police radio, and the Street Response Unit headed back out to Homewood.

Both Assistant Chief Harper and Sgt. Matakovich believe that the two shooters were aware the unit was working the same hours every day and waited for them to clear out before spraying the street with their assault-style rifles. Since then, the unit has altered its shifts and days off to remain unpredictable.

City Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle, whose district includes Homewood, said she was pleased with the unit's work. Churches and funeral homes have called her office, praising the police for the unit's forays into Homewood.

"It's a wonderful initiative," she said, but one that could be expanded. "I'm hopeful that we can do a little bit more. Instead of having them ride through our communities, I would love to see them walk through our communities."

Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962.


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