South Pittsburgh Reporter - Serving South Pittsburgh Since 1939

By David Assad
Contributing Writer 

Mayor wants new station to be part of the neighborhood


March 31, 2009

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl paid a visit to Allentown to address the attendees at the monthly Zone 3 Public Safety meeting at the St. John Vianney Church Center.

With less than a month to go before the new Zone 3 station opens in Allentown at the corner of Warrington and Arlington avenues, the mayor was beaming with excitement over the way the police will be able to serve the public, not just in Allentown and the 15 neighborhoods within Zone 3, but throughout the city.

"Our No. 1 priority is to clean up the city and make it safe," Mr. Ravenstahl said. "We want to make sure the station on the Hilltop is a part of the fabric of the community."

Renovations of the former bank building that was used most recently as a youth hostel for travelers, is expected to be completed by Thursday, April 2. A review of the work done to fit the building for public safety purposes is to begin Friday and the day the Zone 3 police are expected to report is set for Tuesday, April 15 as they move from the antiquated facility on the South Side Flats off of 18th Street.

Black and white drawings, exhibiting the floor plans for all four levels of the building, were distributed at the meeting.

The mayor gave a slide presentation at the meeting that was attended by community leaders from throughout the Zone 3 coverage area. Not only were community leaders from Allentown in attendance, Beltzhoover, Carrick, Arlington and the South Side had representation at the meeting as well.

Quite a few city officials were in attendance at the meeting. This included Councilman Bruce Kraus, Zone 3 commander Catherine McNeilly, Zone 3 crime prevention officer Christine Luffey and Public Safety Director Michael Huss.

Among the topics Mayor Ravenstahl presented at the meeting is the planned re-opening of the city's curfew center as well as the installation of security cameras throughout key intersections throughout the city, including several neighborhoods within Zone 3.

The new center is expected to open sometime in May at 200 N. Dithridge St. in Oakland.

The center will be run by Three Rivers Youth, a longstanding nonprofit organization that ran a Downtown curfew center that was closed in a round of budget cuts in 2003.

The curfew applies to people 16 and under who are wandering the streets after 10 p.m. on school nights and after 11 p.m. on weekends or in the summer. The curfew center has not been enforced since the former center was closed almost six years ago.

The new center will not be as a detention-like setting, but rather a place where counseling can be provided as well as provide for the other needs of troubled youths who are picked up by the police. The trained professionals from Three Rivers Youth will assess the needs of the detainees for their school, health and housing status and try to reach the family. If the family can't be reached, the youth will be offered food and kept overnight.

The curfew center will include a dining area and separate floors for girls and boys, with 12 beds each.

When police see a curfew violator, they will give them one warning. If they see that violator again that same night, or on any subsequent night, they can take them to the center.

Three Rivers Youth President Peggy Harris said her organization will try again to reach the family, and will, if necessary, drive the young person back to his or her home. The family will be offered services by Three Rivers Youth and, where needed, will be connected with other providers.

Three Rivers Youth will be paid $500,000 to manage the center for one year, after which the arrangement will be reviewed. The former curfew center, which was located downtown at the public safety headquarters (that building has since been torn down.) was underused before it was closed altogether. The city police expect to be more aggressively enforce the curfew ordinance.

"We are giving our police better tools and resources to do their job [better]," said Mr. Ravenstahl, noting that each police car is equipped with database computer that includes wireless internet access.

The city expects to put about 80 cameras in neighborhood hotspots, link another 120 existing and privately owned Downtown cameras, install 48 devices for recognizing license plate numbers, and build a computer backbone for analyzing the footage.

First among neighborhoods will be the Mexican War Streets, which will get at least a half-dozen cameras, fulfilling a promise Mr. Ravenstahl made after the shooting of a mail carrier in the neighborhood a year ago.

A city ordinance on cameras allows the police chief to decide on placement of the well-marked cameras, based on crime patterns, the potential to deter mischief, and community support. Mr. Ravenstahl said one or two neighborhoods in each of the city's six police zones will get cameras this year.

The final number of cameras depends on when the money runs out. The initial $4 million investment includes about $2.6 million from the Department of Homeland Security, and the rest from state, county and city funding sources. The mayor hopes more money will be received through other sources to expand the system.

Similar camera systems in Phoenix, Denver and Buffalo have produced dramatic results with crime decreasing by 30 to 50 percent in the areas where they have been installed.

Chicago has been the nation's camera pioneer, deploying thousands of electronic eyes in a $30 million system. Seeing the command center two years ago motivated Mr. Ravenstahl to look into the use of cameras.

City Council has passed a privacy policy that restricts the use of panning and zooming, and automatic tracking of an individual, to instances in which there's cause to believe a crime has been, or is being, committed. It requires that footage be erased within 10 days unless it must be kept as part of an investigation of a crime or incident in which the city may be liable.

The curfew center and use of cameras can also help deter the spread of graffiti which has become a huge problem over the last 10 years.

So far, the city's Graffiti Task Force has identified 50 vandals who have committed more than 600 acts of destruction on public and private property with $1.1 million in restitution taking place so far.

"It's a quality of life issue," Mr. Ravensthal said. "We're serious about showing vandals that we mean business."

The mayor fielded a series of questions from the community leaders at the meeting.

There were several that came from Hilltop residents who are frustrated over what they believe to be the city's lack of commitment to this part of the city.

Several Beltzhoover residents said they were glad the city has torn down many abandoned houses in their neighborhood. However, the vacant lots have now become a dumping ground for people wanting to get rid of their garbage and the problem has become very critical in certain areas of that neighborhood, according to the residents.

Several Arlington residents also complained about having next door neighbors who violate health, sanitation and building codes and nothing is done about it despite their constant complaints to various city agencies.

Also, an Allentown resident complained that 10 percent of the 130 or so murders that took place in Allegheny County last year, were committed in the Zone 3 coverage area which is "very disturbing."

"I see no progress here," the woman said. "My fear is that this summer things will be even worse. We need to address this problem immediately."

Mr. Ravensthal said that the city will begin its Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime before the summer starts. It is modeled after a Boston program. Professor David Kennedy of the City University of New York, is the creator of this program nation-wide. The mayor said there is a plan being drawn up right now that will target the most violent mini-gangs in the city.

Dramatic results in cities like Boston and Cincinnati have drastically reduced violent crimes in those cities through this Initiative to Reduce Crime program invented by the professor.

Another way to stop the gun violence is through legislation introduce by Councilman Kraus that requires gun owners whose firearms are lost or stolen, to promptly report it to the police or face penalties.


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