On a warm evening in June, Allegheny County sheriff's deputies and McKeesport police set out to make their presence known.
As the officers' three-vehicle caravan canvassed the neighborhoods, crisscrossing the streets until nightfall, kids waved, some people stared.
In eight-hour stints, they aimed to be seen, keep crime at bay and, as Sgt. Richard Manning from the sheriff's office put it, "keep the bad guys from seeing each other."
"That's the whole point -- to flood the area and make sure they aren't waiting for the next shooting to happen," he said.
While they prepared for the shift inside the McKeesport police station, detectives from that department said McKeesport isn't as dangerous as its reputation might suggest.
If that's true, it wasn't always like that. McKeesport and eight other suburbs were part of a monthslong focus in communities "overwhelmed by some of the crime that's being committed," Allegheny County Sheriff William Mullen said.
The sheriff's office recently finished using a grant from the U.S. attorney's office Project Safe Neighborhoods, with funds from Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. The award for $18,000 went strictly to overtime for deputies to aid local police with saturation patrols in high-crime suburbs, which started in the fall and ended in late June.
"In our minds, it's to help these small communities in dealing with the spreading crime," the sheriff said.
But what happens to these organized, concentrated patrols now that the grant has run out?
"That's the problem. My budget doesn't allow it," Sheriff Mullen said.
Getting ahead of crime
U.S. attorney David J. Hickton, whose office heads Project Safe Neighborhoods in Western Pennsylvania, said his team tries to choose projects that will make a "meaningful difference," and having "more police on the ground" has been roundly recommended by law enforcement officials.
"If we just sent police to follow reports, historically, we're just going to be chasing things," he said. With saturation patrols, "we can do what we really hope to do, which is eliminate things before they happen."
A saturation patrol is exactly what it sounds like: a joint effort to blanket the neighborhood with a police presence. Sheriff's deputies check for any outstanding warrants and aid in arrests, and they benefit from working with a force already familiar with the problem areas and previous offenders.
Sheriff's deputies in Allegheny County are the only ones in the state with the same law enforcement duties as municipal police officers, another useful role in the patrols, Sheriff Mullen said.
"They're a valuable asset," Braddock police Chief Frank DeBartolo said. "It's nice to know that if we get a ... violent call, these guys show up. ... It really enhances your ability to do police work."
The sheriff's office picked nine suburbs for the patrols: Rankin, Stowe, Mount Oliver, Braddock, Duquense, Clairton, McKeesport, McKees Rocks and Wilkinsburg. Of those, McKeesport, McKees Rocks and Wilkinsburg had five or more homicides last year.
Wilkinsburg had the highest with 12; McKeesport had nine; and McKees Rocks and Penn Hills had five each, according to statistics kept by the Allegheny County medical examiner's office.
"They bring a specialty. In this case, it was manpower," McKees Rocks police Chief Robert Cifrulak said of the deputies.
Deputies have helped clear existing warrants and assisted in patrols in some of these municipalities in the past. But what made this grant important, the sheriff said, is that his office didn't have to draw from its already limited resources or redirect employees from other assignments.
"This was more extensive because we're concentrated in certain areas, and we were able to do this without bankrupting our budget," he said.
He believes the increased police presence during the patrols has made a difference, underscoring that no homicides were committed in the nine suburbs during any of the 24 patrols from fall through June.
The team of deputies and local police made nine arrests, seven citations, 29 traffic stops and 54 searches. They seized crack, marijuana and five or six "big" assault weapons, the sheriff said. Some efforts have prompted other investigations, which are still ongoing.
McKeesport Area school board member Thomas Maglicco said he noticed the patrols one evening in June when he was visiting with McKeesport councilman Richard Dellapenna.
"I saw them drive through a neighborhood. We actually were sitting on his porch, and we saw them go by a couple times.
"It makes you feel good to know that they're doing this," he said, adding that he believes a police presence is a deterrent for people thinking of setting up shop for criminal activities.
The Rev. Sheldon Stoudemire, a street minister from Clairton, said any time there's an increase of police or law enforcement presence, "I think that's a good thing."
"But ... if you just look at history of violent crimes, seizing those weapons, in my opinion, hasn't really curbed or curtailed the crime at all," he said.
The idea of saturation in problem areas has been used in policing for decades.
The presence can have a positive outcome, disrupting a criminal operation in an area, but the success can be for a limited period of time, often displacing crime but not eliminating it, said Maki Haberfeld, professor of police studies and a department chair at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
"At end of the day, they're not moving from Pennsylvania to California," she said.
It's clear that the partnership is hugely important in this mission: Deputies unfamiliar with the characters might not recognize known offenders or know the places they frequent. Local police benefit from having deputies check for outstanding warrants within minutes.
The June 20 patrol that Sgt. Manning led began at the McKeesport police station, where he and others met in the detective's room to discuss a strategy. It wasn't exhaustively detailed, but they decided that McKeesport police would lead in an unmarked SUV and the sheriff's deputies would follow in two marked vehicles.
Their first stop was Crawford Village, a public housing community where a jitney driver had been shot and killed weeks earlier. From there, they stopped at a bar, searched men at a corner known for drug transactions, and made traffic stops.
In one neighborhood of McKeesport, police spotted a woman known by McKeesport police for being involved in drugs and prostitution and who they believed was staying with a drug dealer nearby.
When McKeesport police spotted her, she was at the window of a man's vehicle, and police believed she was most likely taking drugs to the car or getting money from him to take back to the drug house, Sgt. Manning said.
She looked as if she was about to flee when they pulled up, and the totality of all those things gave them probable cause to search her, he said.
In running her name, they learned she had an active warrant for a hit-and-run in West Mifflin.
Sometimes the officers make detours: serving warrants nearby, switching gears at the drop of a hat.
Wilkinsburg police contacted the sheriff's office and requested additional presence during that shift. During another saturation patrol in June, deputies aided police in the arrest of a homicide suspect hiding under trash bags in a basement in Duquesne.
Now that the grant for these patrols has been exhausted, it may be up to individual departments to continue the increased presence as much as their budgets will allow.
Sequestration and the federal budget crisis has begun "to impede upon critical core functions and that's only going to get worse," Mr. Hickton said.
"It is going to be a struggle to continue to do this in the future unless we get a resolution from Congress on funding."
Molly Born: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1944 or on Twitter @borntolede. First Published August 5, 2013 4:00 AM