The venue for the City Public Safety meeting was changed, but may of the problems remain the same.
Police Station Zone 3 West and South public safety councils hosted the citywide meeting June 16 at the Banksville Elementary School. The meeting was originally set for Banksville Park but a resident was given a permit to use the park's indoor facility for a private party, prompting the change of venue.
Residents from Sheraden, Lawrenceville and the North Side attended the meeting as well as many people from the south neighborhoods.
Various city public safety officials were also at the meeting, including Chief of Police Robert McNeilly, John Roundtree (City 911 center coordinator) and Deputy Chief Bob Modrak from the Fire Bureau.
McNeilly said all but a small number of police officers who were laid off last August due to the Mayor Murphy budget cuts, have been called back to duty. Those who have not returned are retired or have declined the offer to return because they have found other employment. With the call-backs in recent months, McNeilly said the department currently has more than 900 officers.
His biggest concern right now is having a list of tested candidates he could hire as future officers. The current candidates list will expire in September. MeNeilly is concerned over the cost of going through another round of civil service tests to draw up a new list of candidates. City budgetary problems may put additional testing on hold, according to the chief.
Despite the turmoil for the past 10 months over the police layoffs and the merger of Zone 3 (the South Side) with Zone 4 (the West End), serious crime is not significantly worse in the city at this point in the year compared to the 2003 crime rate.
The crime rate for serious crime is up two percent, but that is primarily due to a nine percent jump in auto thefts. Other serious crimes are running at about the same rate, or
lower than last year.
McNeilly addressed the heroin problem that has escalated in recent years in the city. He said this is a reflection of the problem that has risen throughout the United States as well as the Western Pa. region outside of the city.
“But we have some really good people working [in the narcotics division],” said McNeilly, noting the increase in heroin is due to an increase in its purity level from 7 percent to 90 percent.
“It's become so pure, you don't need to inject it anymore, just smoke it,” McNeilly said. “But smoking it, you can still become just as addicted.”
McNeilly said the city police have worked hard to cut off many heroin sources. The drug has been primarily brought to Pittsburgh from New York City and Philadelphia. The city police have curbed the problem in recent months by getting local dealers prosecuted through the federal court system.
“When you are prosecuted in federal court, you are put away for 10 to 15 years which is a shock to many of them,” said McNeilly, noting many convicted dealers had been brought to justice in local courts several times but had served minimal jail time prior to their federal convictions.
“We've made some head-way, but it is still a problem,” McNeilly said.
All five police zone commanders attended the meeting, including Zone 3 commander William Joyce.
Councilmen Gene Ricciardi of the South Side and Alan Hertzberg of Sheraden were also present.
Ricciardi spoke briefly and had copies of two proposed city ordinances distributed to the people attending the meeting. The councilman announced that public hearings will take place July 1, one starting at 10 a.m. and another starting at 7 p.m., regarding the Property Owner Responsibility Act he is trying to enact into legislation.
Ricciardi wants to curb a serious problem posed by some absentee landlords by directly going to the landlords' primary residence. He not only wants liens enforced on nuisance properties owned by the landlords, he wants a lien imposed on the landlords' home if they do not comply with the law.
“The city and community must work together to hold absentee landlords accountable for the maintenance and upkeep of their properties and for the recurring and unacceptable actions of problem tenants,” Ricciardi said.
The proposed ordinance is patterned after a law in Milwaukee where landlords report being more careful about choosing their tenants because if the tenant becomes a problem, it is the landlord's home, not the property he rents, that will suffer the consequences of a lien.
With the way the law currently reads, some landlords take advantage of the situation by “walking away” from a nuisance property, allowing it to deteriorate while forfeiting it to city government.
The other legislation Ricciardi is proposing concerns graffiti. The councilman wants to ban the sale of aerosol spray paint, etching materials and other indelible markers to minors (under age 18).
Earlier during the meeting, one of the city building inspectors said his department initiates “city-wide” sweeps to remove graffiti from buildings, fences, walls, etc. but the city is under-staffed and under-budgeted to handle the problem on a massive scale.
Ricciardi said one of the best means of curbing graffiti is to call 911 the moment a citizen witnesses the vandal in the act of spray-painting, etc. He said two people were recently caught in the South Side because of a concerned resident who called 911.
“The damage caused by minors doing these can total thousands of dollars in damage and contributes to the blight and visual pollution of our neighborhoods,” Ricciardi said.
There are four points to Ricciardi's proposed ordinance. First of all, he wants to ban minors from buying the materials used for graffiti. Secondly, he wants the banned materials from being in the possession of any one under age 18 when they are within public parks, roads, playgrounds, swimming pools, etc.
The third part of the plan to curb the graffiti includes making parents legally responsible for the acts of their children. Finally, Ricciardi wants the city to have the power to seek restitution from a person convicted of defacing public property. All costs incurred by the city in removing the graffiti would be paid for by the offender. Ricciardi has been trying to get this enacted for the past three years and said he will continue his fight against graffiti.
“This is the time of the year when we get an influx of complaints about this problem,” the building safety inspector said.