South Pittsburgh Reporter - Serving South Pittsburgh Since 1939

By Margaret L. Smykla
Contributing Writer 

Police community engagement unit focuses on needs in the neighborhood


Last updated 8/5/2020 at 8:50pm

A presentation on the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police (PBP) Community Outreach Office (COO) highlighted the July 20 virtual meeting of the Zone 3 Public Safety Council (Z3PSC).

The group's Zoom video conference included city officials Councilman Bruce Kraus and Zone 3 Commander Karen Dixon.

Z3PSC president Liz Style kicked off the meeting stating some members are not happy reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to begin meetings as they do not believe there is "liberty and justice for all."

For her, it is "aspirational," she said.

Ms. Style said the Pledge would continue at meetings, with the individual option of not participating.

There was also a moment of silence for the late civil rights icon, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who died the prior week.

From his 2017 memoir, "Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America," Ms. Style quoted: "Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society."

Ms. Style heralded the July 13 virtual town hall panel discussion on "The Crisis of Policing and Community Trust," hosted by the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE).

She is hoping to find the on-line video to circulate.

A Z3PSC viewer was Jay Gilmer, STOP The Violence Coordinator and Police Intern Program Coordinator, Pittsburgh Dept. of Public Safety.

"There's a lot of really creative things occurring across the nation," he said.

Ms. Style said she loves hearing law enforcement talk about law enforcement.

She also feels there should be national hiring standards.

She said even where community trust exists, when an event like the George Floyd killing in police custody occurs, all officers begin to feel they are "painted with the same brush." That leads to morale and hiring issues, she said.

In the evening's presentation, Pittsburgh Police Sgt. Tiffany Kline-Costa, head of the new police COO unit, spoke on "The PBP Community Engagement Unit: What it is and how can communities work with it?"

She agreed with Ms. Style national standards for hiring police officers would be good. She said a national list would help assure that a fired officer is not unwittingly hired by another municipality.

COO was formed in Sept., 2019, when she was hired as a sergeant. Three officers work with her. A lieutenant was added to the office in March, bringing the total in COO to five.

She said the best part of the pandemic era was "people taking care of each other." Among other activities, COO provided food and hot meals to those in need, delivering it directly to them.

COO participates in a food program on Tuesdays, delivering food to Northview Heights and Beechview.

COO also partnered with the nonprofit Global Links for 60,000 face masks for 66 city organizations, from senior high-rises to after-school sites.

Before the pandemic, she focused on meeting residents and attending community events.

COO's "Youth Connections" program visits schools as part of the upper grades' civics curriculum. Sgt. Kline-Costa would like to expand to grades 1 to 3.

In the questions-and-answers segment, Mr. Kraus said he and Sharlee Ellison, of the Knoxville Community Council, met with residents of the Beltzhoover and Knoxville neighborhoods.

What came up, and surprised him, was that hiring more police officers means a heavier policing style in minority neighborhoods, which concerns him.

Ms. Ellison said it was always a concern to her when officers are called, one patrol car leads to five patrol cars, even when the infraction is, say, a broken tail light.

Multiple vehicles at a scene often make a situation look worse than it is, she said.

She does not understand why the multiple vehicles remain once a routine matter is known. She said it creates more hard feelings than necessary, while the violator is embarrassed.

Ms. Ellison said there are traditions in neighborhoods, like sitting on the wall at McKinley Park and watching basketball. 

Police see that and continue driving by, turning it into "something that is not necessary," she said.

She never heard of COO. Officials are welcome to come to the Knoxville Community Council to talk about COO and its programs, she said, as she completely supports the police.

Mr. Kraus said a great idea would be for new recruits to be required to meet with community leaders and organizations in the zone to which they are assigned.

New students to the Flats each year are introduced to residents by the university, and are given information on living there.

"People are less likely to offend when they make a personal connection with you," Mr. Kraus said.

Mr. Gilmer said in Zone 5, new recruits will be knocking on doors, and therefore making a difference.

Sgt. Kline-Costa said she was "excited to hear of this."

She told Ms. Ellison in her North Side neighborhood she has seen multiple officers at scenes. She said it is up to the street level supervisors to say it is more than enough.

"It's complicated," she said, but over-policing seems to be an issue while others want more coverage, creating a balancing act.

Ms. Ellison said those who make the 911 calls are scared to come outside, as are seniors. Multiple officers make it worse, calling it "overkill."

Sgt. Kline-Costa said the officers on calls can use the situation to talk to residents. Others on patrol are building relationships with the community.

She said a program is being crafted to encourage officers to be more involved in the community, such as working with children at the community center.

"We are guardians of the neighborhood," she said.

Commander Dixon said there are a lot of pieces to why multiple officers show up for a call, such as a slow shift. But the supervisor needs to be aware of it.

She also said all officers should attend community meetings and learn what is going on, and what can be done to improve matters.

In reports, Commander Dixon said crime trends were mostly down the past few months, but are coming back.

She also reported the zone staff of 115 officers is the best number since she's been there.

She said it is important for officers to learn the zone areas on all three shifts as day problems in areas are different from night problems.

To a question about illegal quads and dirt bikes in the Flats, the commander said even with a 911 call, the riders are gone by the time officers arrive. She said they will take off quickly to start a chase.

"A motorcycle pursuit is one of the most dangerous things you'll see.

"They have no respect for anyone but their thrill," she said of the riders.

Besides Carson St., she is seeing this problem on Grandview Ave., in Carrick, and elsewhere in the zone.

Mr. Kraus said they also "terrorized neighborhoods" over the July 4 weekend.

"A lot of that is baiting [police] for a chase," he said.

Next, Roy Blankenship, of the Hilltop Alliance, commented if someone comes to him with a problem he can refer them to a board or such. He feels a lot of the concerns "get lost in the mix" with so many buffers.

Mr. Kraus said to keep contacting him about a specific matter.

"Please make a point to get hold of me," he said.

The commander told Mr. Blankenship the issue is the important thing.

 Referring to the prior discussion, Ms. Ellison added when a youngster is with a group of friends and officers keep driving by, the youngster needs to go home as he/she does not pick real friends well.

Instead of complaining about the police, go home, she said.

In announcements, Ms. Style reported numerous summer events are cancelled, including the Picnic with Police. The second annual event was scheduled for July 18 in the Arlington Spray Park.

The good news is that funding was secured for a Picnic with Police in 2021.

National Night Out will not be held in August, as is traditional. It is now planned for October 6, and following COVID-19 rules.

The next Z3PSC meeting will be on Aug. 17.


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