Officers walk to arrest crime before it happens
Pittsburgh police Officer Brett Butkewich of the Zone 3 station listens to comments from a concerned woman in the doorway of Mooney's Place on Brownsville Road in Carrick.
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The officers hopped out of their cruiser and made a beeline for their target: the ice cream shop.
The young man behind the counter alerted his bosses at the sight of them.
"No, it's OK," Officer Gary Lis told him. "We're just stopping by to see if there have been any problems."
"You've been having some problems?" a leery patron cut in.
"No, no, we're just keeping the neighborhood safe, that's all," the officer said, joining the man at a lunch table at DiFiore's Ice Cream Delite. "They want us to get out, walk around and talk to people. How are things going?"
Officer Lis and Officer Mike Benney explained their approach. For a few hours on a rainy day last week, they were canvassing Mount Washington's trouble areas -- not the places pegged as hot spots by statistics and studies but those pinpointed by the people living in them. Their task on this "quality-of-life patrol" was to get out of their squad car and walk around, get to know folks and see what frustrates them -- from kids drinking in the park, to litter, to prostitution and drug dealing in the business districts.
They likened their work to that of a shoe-leather beat officer who walks the streets to deter crime and, if successful, forge relationships with community members who can help solve it. For the rookie patrolmen, the assignment was a departure from the typical shift of roaming the roads and chasing 911 calls. The effort on this day led the officers to Shiloh Street, where business owners often talk of loitering bargoers and drug dealers who work out of a shade-covered parklet at the end of the street. The two got an earful.
Supervisors in the Zone 3 station in Allentown this summer jump-started the quality-of-life patrols to quash the kinds of problems residents routinely reported at monthly community meetings: kids making late-night noise in Carrick's Phillips Park, a lack of police visibility on stretches of Brownsville Road, drug sales around Mount Washington's Ream Recreation Center.
Police compiled a list of targets based on their concerns and tapped certain open-minded officers to hit them by parking their squad cars and walking around for 15 minutes, twice during their shifts. The "park-and-walks" are random so that criminals can't predict them, said Lt. Larry Scirotto, who coordinates the patrols. A few officers from each shift were chosen for the job, and their work is supplemented by others who do the patrol for overtime, four hours a day, three times a week.
Commanders of the city's six zone police stations are allotted money to pay officers overtime for certain crime-fighting efforts. While others are using money to saturate "hot spots" that have seen an uptick in violence with officers who make arrests, Zone 3 is using at least part of its funds for the community-oriented tactic, officials said.
"The old guard says, how is this touchy-feely stuff going to work?" Lt. Scirotto said. "But it's developing relationships with our investors -- that's what residents are, they have an investment in the community."
The effort is reminiscent of the formalized Community Oriented Policing Services program used by the city until federal funding was cut in 2003. The grant allowed the bureau to set up mini-stations in communities and employ more than 100 officers whose job it was to build bonds with residents in every city neighborhood.
"We went from a structured formalized program to a program where every officer is responsible for community policing," deputy police Chief Paul Donaldson said.
But manpower shortages and high summertime call volumes have made it hard for patrol officers to be proactive, and residents in many of the Zone 3 neighborhoods complained that they rarely saw a patrol car, let alone a beat officer.
Other enforcement strategies rush officers into neighborhoods after an act of violence to search for suspects and guns, but "when they leave, the residents don't feel any more empowered, they just know there was some response. They still don't know how to reach us," said Lt. Scirotto, who was once himself a member of the now-defunct Street Response Unit, whose uniformed officers aggressively targeted problems in the city's high-crime areas. Now he spends time responding to emails from residents reporting problems large and small.
"It empowers them to continue to want to be involved with the police because it gives them access," the lieutenant said. "At the end of the day that's what we're trying to accomplish."
Success, he said, will be gauged on how safe residents report feeling and whether they continue to report problems. Other cities have tried similar tactics with mixed results, but John Firman, director of research for the International Chiefs of Police Association, called community-policing "one of the most positive things that has happened in policing in two decades."
He pointed to an experiment in the summer of 2009, in which 250 Philadelphia officers did foot patrols in 60 areas that had seen violence. According to a Temple University study of that program, violent crime in the targeted areas dropped 23 percent, and arrests climbed 13 percent, among other benefits.
Although "it's too soon to know whether crime has gone down," business owners on Brownsville Road in Carrick, who spoke of drug deals and prostitution outside their storefronts, feel safer with the police presence, said Carol Anthony, who sits on the crime prevention committee of the Carrick Community Council.
"A lot of them didn't know whether to shut down or stick it out because it was getting so bad," she said. "People were feeling very uncomfortable about what was happening, Now that the police are engaging, they feel so much better about the situation."
Officer Brett Butkewich made a point to pace the 2600 block of Brownsville on Friday night. It wasn't long before he found a man crouching in a storefront, with fishing lines in a dingy backpack and an open can of Busch beer on the street in front of him. The man squirmed as the officer took his ID and jotted down his information. "He's getting two citations," the officer said after the man had scurried down a side street. "Open container, and public intox."
As Officer Butkewich made his way back up the block, a woman peered out of the door of The Melrose and smiled. "Do we have a walking one? Thank you!"
To another woman, the officer said, "If you guys ever need anything, don't hesitate to call."
First Published July 22, 2012 12:00 am