Pittsburgh Police giving recruits new training on homelessness
February 2, 2021
Pittsburgh police recruits are receiving unique training to understand the experiences of residents who are homeless, the availability of services, and the impact of public safety involvement on displaced people, through the "Homelessness Academy" program at the police training academy.
The program is being implemented by the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police in conjunction with the Office of Community Health & Safety in Mayor William Peduto's office, and the Department of Public Safety's Office of Community Services and Violence Prevention.
The programs are part of Mayor Peduto's efforts to give front-line workers more support when interacting with residents in desperate need of social services, and a reassessment generally of the city's relations with displaced people.
For many police, the first time in their lives that they ever come into contact with a homeless resident is when they start on the job as a police officer. To ease that transition the Homelessness Academy gives recruits background on complexities that people experience living outside, trauma, reasons why people do not stay in shelters, and how polices can help by engaging responsive supportive services.
After the initial Homelessness Academy trainings recruits were surveyed for their reactions: 28 percent reported they had never had a conversation with someone experiencing homelessness before, and 71 percent said the training gave them a better familiarity with the issue.
Through the program recruits hear first-hand from a community advocate who experienced homelessness, learn from an Allegheny Health Network official on the unique challenges facing residents experiencing homelessness, and review the resources police can deploy to assist people.
The academy - borne out of collaborative efforts with the Homeless Outreach Coordination Committee and Resource Office - is a joint initiative with OCHS, which was launched last summer to oversee social and public health services supporting community members and first responders who regularly interface with residents needing assistance and harm reduction support.
It is also a result of the city's partnership with AHN's Center for Inclusion Health to provide street outreach community-based teams to help with service delivery to residents with unmet needs.
"This is a continuation of Police's years-long focus on building bridges with all communities in Pittsburgh," Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said. "Our goal is to have the best police bureau in the country, with officers who receive training that is second to none."
Police training in Pennsylvania is regulated by the Municipal Police Officers' Education and Training Commission (MPOETC). Law enforcement agencies are allowed to offer additional training beyond what MPOETC requires, which includes programs like the Homelessness Academy, which is tailored to Pittsburgh's unique issues.
"This program better prepares recruits to look at social issues with a guardian mindset. It opens their eyes to the reality and the humanity of the situation and provides them with a better understanding of the key issues related to homelessness," Police Chief Scott Schubert said.
The training program is overseen by Sgt. Colleen Bristow, who has worked to enhance the MPOETC to better prepare officers for community needs, and features remarks by community advocate and leader Kelly Ferri and AHN homeless and urban poverty director Dan Palka, as well as by police leaders who talk to recruits about their experiences and how they build empathy for those living on the street.
"Community members and people working directly in the community are our experts. It is the responsibility of the Office of Community Health & Safety to support residents and first responders by ensuring that services are available, responsive, and low barrier," OCHS Manager Laura Drogowski said. "Police and EMS are the last safety net – with this training, we work to help officers understand that treating people with dignity, respect, and support can change their experiences."