Crime, safety major topics at mayoral forum
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Guns, gangs, cameras and curfews were the flashpoints last night as four Pittsburgh mayoral candidates met to contrast their approaches to public safety on a day when police rushed from shooting to shooting.
"Right now, our crime rate is the big issue," said attorney Carmen Robinson, a former city police sergeant and a candidate in the May 19 Democratic primary, before around 100 people at the Kingsley Association building in Larimer. "I'm here to tell you, crime costs all Pittsburghers."
The key question was what to do in the face of a perception of worsening violent crime driven by last year's murder totals -- the worst since the mid-1990s -- and the April 4 killings of three police officers in Stanton Heights.
"I wouldn't define it as a public safety crisis," Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said after the forum. "I think all of our levels of awareness have been raised with the tragic events on April 4. It's difficult to say whether or not some of the activity that's happening now is in any way related" to aftershocks of the police slayings.
Mr. Ravenstahl argued that his administration was already making strides, by pushing for federal and state gun controls, preparing to take down violent gangs, putting cameras in high-crime neighborhoods, and trying to open a new curfew center.
But his rivals disagreed with his approaches and implementation.
"What we need are some goals, and we need to marshal some resources to those goals," said city Councilman Patrick Dowd, another Democratic challenger. Goal one: "Systematically, we will dismantle the illegal gun trade in this city."
He said he would focus city, state and federal law enforcement on tracking the gun trade.
Franco "Dok" Harris, a declared independent candidate for the November general election, said the city should "stop going after these small street-level dealers" and go after those "bringing in large amounts of powerful weapons to go along with the drug trade" using racketeering laws.
Ms. Robinson called the push for gun laws, like the one City Council passed last year mandating the prompt reporting of the loss or theft of a gun, "distractions." She said money that will be spent defending a National Rifle Association lawsuit seeking to overturn the ordinance would be better spent on neighborhood programs.
"We will be forced to defend that ordinance, and we will defend that ordinance," said Mr. Ravenstahl, though he did not sign it and believes it is unenforceable at the city level.
Ms. Robinson criticized the lack of progress on the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime, or PIRC, an effort modeled on Boston's successful anti-gang push.
Mr. Ravenstahl and Councilman Ricky Burgess announced that impending effort to punish entire gangs for one member's violence in September, saying then that it would be six months before results would be evident. The mayor said he still expects to have the program, to be guided by the City University of New York Center For Crime Prevention and Control Director David M. Kennedy, in place by summer.
"Mr. Kennedy is not an African-American. He is a Caucasian," Ms. Robinson noted, adding that someone local, who could better relate to gang members, might be more effective.
Mr. Dowd doubted PIRC would work. "It's really targeting a small set of violent actors in our community," he said, whereas quashing the illegal gun trade and engaging youth would be more effective.
Mr. Ravenstahl's $4.1 million effort to put cameras along riverfronts and in high-crime areas also took shots.
Mr. Dowd said cameras really only reduce property crime, rather than violent crime. Mr. Harris said they just shunt crime to another block or neighborhood.
The mayor took council to task for slowing the opening of a new curfew center, by delaying legislation allocating $500,000.
"The question is, do our police officers understand the youth of this city?" he asked. "One way they're going to understand the youth of this city is having the opportunity to enforce the curfew" which has been in abeyance for five years since the closure of a prior center.
Mr. Dowd said an overnight holding facility is "not what I would call a great way for the police to get connected to the youth culture in our community." Rather, the city needs a "truancy center" to hold youth during the hours immediately after school, when, he said, most student-age crime takes place.
First Published April 29, 2009 12:00 am