Tony Norman: Police treat innovation like it’s a crime

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If you read the front-page story in Monday’s Post-Gazette about the police brass slow-walking the implementation of the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime, I hope you were part of a collective howl of outrage that echoed around the region.

When New York criminology professor David Kennedy of the John Jay Center for Crime Prevention and Control brought his revolutionary program for stemming gang violence here in 2008, it had a well-established reputation as an approach that lived up to its hype.

In several major American cities from New Orleans to Cincinnati to Boston, gang members — suspected and confirmed — were brought face-to-face with community stakeholders most affected by their acts of mayhem and gun violence. These young men were given an array of carrots and sticks encouraging them to turn away from their self-destructive path.

Under police supervision, gang-bangers met grieving mothers and other family members of murdered rivals. They also were confronted by cops, the feds and representatives from the district attorney’s office who promised them that their gangs would be held personally accountable for future shootings in their neighborhoods. In other words, life would get exponentially more difficult with every body that dropped on their corners. They would have to take responsibility for everything in their so-called “territory” while facing the possibility of federal charges, too.

But under the program, gang members aren’t simply subjected to an unending litany of threats and intimidation by cops and the DA’s office. They are also offered job training and educational opportunities, drug and alcohol counseling and other incentives to give up a life with only two likely outcomes — prison or the grave. This is a simplistic way of explaining an approach to gang violence that is much more nuanced in actual execution, but this is the gist of it.

With great fanfare, the Ravenstahl administration gave lip service to the goals of the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime, pledging cooperation, funding and moral support. Unfortunately, the police brass and the veteran officers whose knowledge of the streets is necessary to make the PIRC work were hostile to outsiders and scholars coming to Pittsburgh. They weren’t interested in others’ suggestions about how best to approach the city’s gang problem.

It was a grim variation of the familiar Pittsburgh mantra that accompanies even the most benign attempts at change: “That’s not how we do things around here.” You can almost feel the hackles rising on the necks of Pittsburgh police as academics from the University of Cincinnati unveiled maps of the city’s most violent hot spots, including its 35 most violent gangs. Who did these Bengals fans think they were, coming into our town with all of their fancy suggestions and flow charts?

In what can only be described as a petulant and self-defeating strategy borne of perennial insecurity, the Pittsburgh police department refused to share any of its intelligence. Looking back on the debacle, Mr. Kennedy, who probably didn’t score any points with this crew for being a dead ringer for Willie Nelson, summed up the situation as he saw it:

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

“My read on this,” Mr. Kennedy continued, ”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.” Mr. Kennedy quit the effort and walked away from the PIRC, despite city council’s willingness to fund it. He knew that without police cooperation, it would amount to money down a rat hole.

Fast forward to 2014 when the murder rate is beginning to tick upward. Most of the obstructionists in the police department still have their jobs, and a general attitude of hostility toward innovation still reigns. This time, the Peduto administration is on the hot seat as it conducts a nationwide search for a new police chief fearless and smart enough to tackle the department’s culture of complacency.

The biggest obstacle to an effective response to Pittsburgh’s gang problem is the entrenched network of good old boys that continues to dominate the bureaucracy. Bringing them to heel will be the next police chief’s biggest challenge.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631; Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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