August 12, 2008 |

South Pittsburghers testify before council about police staffing

South Pittsburgh residents, concerned about the rapid changing of command at the Zone 3 Police Station and what is seen as a need for more officers at the station, had their opportunity to address the [almost] entire city council last week.

The South Pittsburgh Reporter called for a public hearing on the subjects and Susan McCoy of the South Side was the city resident of record on the petitions needed to request the hearing. Although the city requires only 25 residents' signatures on the petitions requesting the hearing, almost 600 residents from all parts of Zone 3 signed the petitions.

At the hearing in City Council Chambers on Tuesday, Aug. 12, the gallery was filled with residents and business people from throughout Zone 3, but only 19 had preregistered to speak before council. Those who had preregistered were given three minutes to address city council and others were permitted only one minute to speak.

Attending all or part of the hearing were City Council President Doug Shields and council members Darlene Harris, Dan Deasy, Bruce A. Kraus, Jim Motznik, Tonya Payne, William Peduto and Rev. Ricky Burgess. While the Zone 3 police district is predominately in Councilman Kraus' district, it also includes portions of councilmen Motznik's and Deasy's districts.

Representing the police at the hearing were Chief Nate Harper, Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson [a past commander of Zone 3], and Asst. Chief William Bochter.

The first speaker was Tom Smith, editor and publisher of The South Pittsburgh Reporter, who echoed concerns heard throughout South Pittsburgh about the length of service by commanders in Zone 3, not necessarily who was in command of the station.

"Like a small business that constantly changes managers and policy, the police in the community suffer from a perception in the community that there is a lack of leadership, not necessarily because the commander isn't knowledgeable or sympathetic to the neighborhood's problems, but because with each change in commander a new process of learning and relationship building has to begin again," he said.

Mr. Smith also noted that while the station may have a contingent of close to 100 officers, when command personnel, vacation days, sick days and personal days are taken into account at times there are only a handful of officers available to patrol the 18 neighborhoods that make up Zone 3.

Christen Sauer, director of the South Side Chamber of Commerce, spoke of the concerns in the business district over the lack of officers available for patrolling in the South Side business corridor. She explained the need for more officers is particularly great on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights when the population of South Side nearly triples with the large influx of visitors coming in to patronize the theaters, restaurants and bars in the neighborhood.

She told the council members that the chamber has had a good relationship with the Zone 3 commanders in the past and would like to see a commander stay long enough to build that relationship in the future.

"The [frequent] changing of commanders is just unacceptable," said Judy Hackel, president of the Allentown Community Development Corp. "It takes them so long to get acclimated."

Ms. Hackel called for a long range plan to make the neighborhoods in Zone 3 a safer place to live and work.

"I'm distressed that we don't see a lot of public safety people here or even council people," she added. At the time of

her presentation, only the council members representing Zone 3 and Ms. Harris and Mr. Shields were at the table. Chiefs Donaldson and Bochter were attending, but seated off to the side and not prominent.

"All we have is [off-duty police officers working private details at bars] who do nothing," Wanda Jankoski of the South Side said. She told city council members that it sometimes takes police more than two hours to respond to a 911 call in the South Side.

A member of the South Side Community Task Force, Ms. Jankoski said "we need somewhere to go to get information…we need to know where to go to help ourselves."

She noted that the station is down 70 officers from before Zone 6 was reopened in the West End, but Zone 3 now has three more neighborhoods than before the consolidation of the two stations.

"The URA is going to give money to move the police station, perhaps the URA could buy all the houses in South Side," she concluded.

"We're left out in the wind when all the police are in the South Side," Gloria Ostermeyer of Mount Washington said. "We're a major tourist attraction and there's no one there to help them."

Tom Brady of Mount Washington expressed his concerns over the changing of the commanders at Zone 3 saying that every time a commander is changed at the station the community has to start over building relationships. He told council that they haven't received answers when they've asked why the commanders have been changed so frequently in the zone.

"We're having problems with the police," he continued. "We don't have enough of them."

"It has to be straightened out and it has to be straightened out today."

Genie Beckom noted to the elected officials that her neighborhood, Beltzhoover, is an area that traditionally has one of the highest voting rates [in the city]. She then complained about the lack of public safety services, "you don't provide enough."

"When you have the staffing levels that you have in Zone 3," she said. "How can anyone feel safe reporting a crime?"

Georgia Blotzer from Duquesne Heights expressed her concerns with the equipment the police need to do their job. She said that Zone 3, "the largest zone in the city only has four patrol cars for the entire zone."

She also didn't want one neighborhood pitted against another while vying for the attention of the police.

"I know that each of you is hearing the same thing from your constituents. Are your constituents being as underserved as ours," Ms. Blotzer asked.

Pat Reilly, representing state Rep. Chelsa Wagner, said her office has been fielding many calls concerning public safety. He said residents are complaining about slow and no-show service from the police.

He also said Rep. Wagner was "grateful" for having Commander Catherine McNeilly and asked that she remain in Zone 3.

"The crimes I have heard other neighborhoods discuss have made it to the South Side," said Ms. McCoy, sponsor of the petition that resulted in the hearing before City Council. She listed several crimes including armed robbery, shootings and more that have all taken place recently in the South Side.

"If police presence acts as a deterrent to crime, does a lack of police presence invite crime," she asked.

Mary Angela Ogg from Carrick strayed from the topics of the public hearing, choosing instead to commend the city for bringing in another new commander and moving the Zone 3 police station from the South Side Flats to the Hilltop.

"Zone 3 moving…a new commander…I think this is a new day," she said. "I think the new location is a step forward for all of us."

Tony Mosesso from Bon Air told the council that the lack of officers in Zone 3 has resulted in extended wait times for calls to 911. He explained that on a recent call for a car break in, Mount Oliver police responded in five minutes and were able to apprehend the suspect. However, it took city police more than 40 minutes to make it to the neighborhood.

"You don't see a police car in my neighborhood unless it's the motorcycle cop who lived there," Mr. Mosesso said.

In her statement before council, Eve Trbovich from the South Side said that on any shift there are only 22 officers available to police Zone 3. She noted that 13 percent of the liquor licenses in the City of Pittsburgh, 104 out of 804, are located in South Side with little police protection to keep an eye on the patrons of those bars.

"There's really not any police there to monitor the behavior of the people coming in and then leaving the neighborhood," she said.

Natalia Rudiak said that it seems some of her Carrick neighbors have given up completely with the lack of a police presence in the neighborhood. She lamented the lack of consistency in the commander's office and the lack of officers at the station.

Ms. Rudiak also wondered about the lack of information forthcoming from city officials, "we can't help you if you don't keep us in the loop."

"We on the Slopes deal with the quality of life issues that keep people from moving into the neighborhood," said Brad Palmisiano, president of the South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association.

He urged city council members to "allocate the resources as best you can."

"We need a sense of order and that's the consistency the police provide," he said.

Speakers who didn't register in advance were permitted one minute to make a brief statement. Those from the South Pittsburgh area included:

Diane Delmer who told council she has lived in Mount Washington for 25 years and this is the first time she is thinking of leaving because of the crime and lack of police protection in the neighborhood.

Penny Folino from South Side said, "I think we need to put aside our pride and ask for assistance" from the state to patrol East Carson Street. She said that at a recent role call on one shift there was only one officer there for duty at the station.

"South Side is the top revenue earner in the city and we can't be ignored."

"There's no common sense here," Jill Harris of Mount Washington said. "If we only have four cars, why aren't we calling other zones?"

Beth Pittinger, a South Side resident and member of the Citizen Police Review Board, talked about the "toll this crisis in officers has brought." She noted the frustration of officers due to equipment and number of calls they answer.

She also expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of information available from the city. "We protect data in this city," she said. "Why is it a secret?"

After hearing from the gallery, Mr. Shields asked the police officials to join the council members at the table to answer questions.

Chief Harper began by saying if the calls increase in one zone they will pull cars from other zones to assist. However, he added that, "no community wants to give up their cars to other communities."

"We like to see the communities become stakeholders," he told members of council.

Councilman Shields queried the police chief on why the commanders have been frequently moved in and out of Zone 3.

"We move them around to get them well rounded," the chief replied. "We expect the community to work with each and every commander."

Councilman Deasy asked why the police didn't have the new vehicles council had allocated funding for this year.

Chief Harper explained that the first shipment of 50 police vehicles has come in and were being equipped for use. He said there was a delay with the manufacturer causing the vehicles to come in late.

He noted that 14 of the vehicles were returned for damage to the paint and an additional 20 should be arriving soon.

Asst. Chief Bochter told council that "we never have one officer" available for a shift. If need be, officers are held over or called in from another zone.

Deputy Chief Donaldson explained that to determine how many officers are needed in a zone they use a formula that takes into consideration the population of the zone, the square mileage and victimization rate, along with the number of Part I and Part 2 crimes. According to the formula, Zone 3 is entitled to 19.4 percent of operations officers in the city. Currently, they have 19.2 percent of the officers.

"The complaints we heard from the population is the same across the city," Chief Donaldson said.

To questioning by council members Chief Bochter said that off-duty officers doing private duty carry police radios.

Each zone also has 88 hours of overtime to use where the need is greatest. He said that some zones use it for one officer doing extra shifts several days a week and others use two or more officers. The decision is up to the commander.

Chief Harper said that the 917 officers currently on the police force is a "good number." He explained that with a new surveillance camera system being implemented and improved policing techniques such as directed patrols the police are able to anticipate where and when the crimes are going to occur and are better prepared.

"I can't beat up the chief or assistant chief over staffing levels, but it's our fault." Councilman Motznik said. "It's our fault that we haven't allocated enough money for adequate numbers."

Councilman Peduto said it is the communities that are most involved that are the most successful. He also noted that in his district police commanders have changed six times in four years.

"Under what management system is this good? Is two years good? Is four years good?" he asked. "In the 14 years that I've been here I have not seen the turn around that we've seen recently. I would like to see commanders in the position for two to four years."

Chief Harper told council members that they like their commanders to know the entire city, not just one zone. He said although the commanders are rotated around, most personnel in the station remain and it's they who are most familiar with the neighborhoods.

"We ask so much of you and don't always give you enough to do your job," Councilman Kraus said.

He said what he would like to see is a police force that is well equipped, well trained and well paid.

The councilman lamented that the police have to spend so much time looking after intoxicated visitors to Carson Street. "It saps public safety resources from the other Zone 3 neighborhoods."

Mr. Kraus said he would like to go to Harrisburg to see if the city can get more state money for public safety.

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