Pitcairn tries to focus on the positives from a big drug roundup

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Pitcairn has only around 3,300 residents, so when a sting operation on the borough's main street netted 51 people on drug-dealing charges this month, that was like nailing more than 4,700 in Pittsburgh.

Most of the collars in this joint operation by the Allegheny County and Pitcairn police were for heroin charges. Only about half of those arrested claimed residency in Pitcairn, and some of them could be lying. Other suspects were scattered from Plum to the Hill District. But none of those qualifiers does much to lessen what Pitcairn Councilman Jack Bova called "an absolutely staggering number.''

The question for any community after such a bust is how to keep drug dealers away for good. Many never find the answer, but Police Chief Scott Farally is working on one.

Chief Farally makes his home and has a fair share of relatives in this one-half square mile borough in the Turtle Creek Valley. He's working on the same "hot spot'' theory that East Liberty used to dramatically lower its crime rate, but he is touting a different tool.

East Liberty Development Inc. has bought more than 200 units in the neighborhood in recent years, targeting nuisance properties where crimes took place. It points to a 49 percent decrease in overall crime in the neighborhood's residential streets between 2008 and 2012, a period in which home prices soared.

When the bad guys are forced out, they have to go somewhere else. Pitcairn leaders don't want that choice to be Pitcairn, and Chief Farally is confident "there's a lot we can do about it.''

The arrests were the start. Thirty of those arrested were renting at just 11 borough addresses. Chief Farally handed me a photocopy of U.S. Code 856 regarding "Maintaining drug-involved premises.'' It goes on for three pages, but the long and short of it is that federal prosecutors can lean on whoever knowingly rents a place for the purpose of making, storing or selling illegal drugs.

Feds call it "the crack house statute.'' It was used to put away a Garfield homeowner in 2005 for letting his son and other dealers sell dope from his house in exchange for heroin.

Most property owners don't have such a direct tie to drugs, but local police chiefs are nonetheless encouraged to compile a list of the properties where there have been arrests and forward that to U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton. The federal prosecutor can then send letters to the building owners inviting them to discuss the drug activity.

One would expect a landlord to clean up his act after reading of the penalties that include forfeiture of the property. In the recent past, some landlords have been grateful to be shown how to rewrite their leases to make the eviction of drug dealers easier. But it doesn't always work that way. Eric Jester, project director at East Liberty Development Inc., warned that the crack statute works best in strong rental markets.

"If you're asking the landlord to take a loss for a safer Pitcairn, you can almost see him flicking you the bird from his perch in Murrysville,'' Mr. Jester said.

Chief Farally exudes confidence nonetheless. He already has received cooperation from the handful of landlords with whom he's met. Neither he nor Mr. Bova seem like guys willing to accept that nothing can be done. Pitcairn may be so small that people drive through on Route 130 and don't even realize they've done so, but for these men, it's home.

"I've put a lot of time and effort into [catching drug dealers],'' said Chief Farally, who got behind this sting operation almost as soon as he became chief about six months ago. "It can be curbed.''

The pathos behind the drug use was evident in a young prisoner waiting, scared, in a small room in the police station. The desiccated young blonde woman looked 10 years older than her recent mug shot, another extreme makeover brought to you by heroin.

"Pitcairn will continue its efforts to make its streets safer,'' Mr. Bova vowed in an email, "but I do wonder what happens to these folks after they are released. Do they find another town if we make it too hard to do business here? Is that the best we can do?"

For now, it's all they can do. That beats wishing their slice of the national drug epidemic away.

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com 412-263-1947.

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