Two years ago, Ed Gainey ran for Pittsburgh mayor, focusing his campaign in large part on making Pittsburgh’s police more accountable and less militarized. Gainey won the election.
Now, in a competitive and crowded race for Allegheny County executive, John Weinstein is betting a different public safety message will carry the day. Weinstein, the longtime county treasurer, launched his campaign with a speech describing crime in Pittsburgh’s Downtown as a serious threat to the region’s prosperity and implicated current city and county leaders (Gainey included) for not doing enough about it.
“You have no plan to clean up Pittsburgh, this is the result,” Weinstein said in a recent interview, citing youth crime and rising rates of homicide, what he termed “aggressive panhandling” and a sluggish return to pre-pandemic capacity at Downtown offices. A television ad paid for by Weinstein’s campaign opens with clips of newscasts describing “disturbing” homicide statistics, followed by the candidate saying, “We need to take action right now. We need strong leadership.”
Weinstein’s emphasis on public safety and crime is the most pronounced of the seven-member Democratic field, but he’s not alone in shifting away from the police accountability push that overtook Democratic politics in 2020 and 2021. Even the most left-leaning candidates, like state Rep. Sara Innamorato and county Councilwoman Olivia Bennett, talk little of police accountability on their campaign websites and in public forums.
A diminished focus on policing this election cycle is partly due to the nature of the county executive’s duties. Managing police is at the very core of a mayor’s job, while the county executive oversees a smaller department but is more focused on regional economic growth, public health and human services.
But the shift is also in line with a change in Democratic politics nationwide; many candidates have moved toward the center on policing issues, some urging funding increases for police, after liberals suffered brutal results in 2021 elections in some places. (Notably, Allegheny County was not one of those places.) The trend continued even last week, with the defeat of an incumbent Chicago mayor blamed by rivals for rising crime.
Candidates pitch collaborative role on safety
While the Bureau of Police makes up almost a fifth of the city’s budget and comprises more than a quarter of its employees, the county’s police department makes up about 4% of its operating budget and workforce.
The county’s police force employs around 280 people, including some administrative staff, and traditionally has been tasked with patrolling county parks and airports and assisting municipal police with investigations on occasion. The department pales in comparison to the county’s Department of Human Services, which goes through more than $1 billion annually and employs more than 1,000 people, including contracted workers. In a reflection of that, most executive candidates are approaching safety from a holistic perspective, advocating for incorporating human services into existing police response.
“The county executive’s role is ensuring, long term, safe and healthy communities throughout the region,” Innamorato said of the executive’s role in public safety, listing parks, blight and economic opportunity as factors. “When we connect people to jobs and opportunities that pay well, you see an increase in public safety and a decrease in crime.”
Pittsburgh Controller Michael Lamb said the county could leverage its hefty human services department and offer mental health and addiction care as co-responses with law enforcement.
He credited Gainey with prioritizing such co-response initiatives but said the mayor has not been able to execute them.
“They just have failed to launch,” Lamb said. “I think that’s a key role for the county executive both in the city and beyond, because that co-response … is going to be driven a lot by the Department of Human Services of the county.”
Bennett similarly said the executive should support public safety by being a partner to the county’s 130 municipalities, “so that the municipalities can really take those resources and allocate them in the way that they know will get the best outcomes for their region.”
Dave Fawcett, an attorney and former county councilman, said the executive can further public safety by seeking financial assistance from corporations and nonprofits to boost county resources. Extracting money from major nonprofits such as UPMC has long been a priority of Pittsburgh mayors, but multiple executive candidates have signaled it could become more of a county priority as well.
“And the resources can’t be just traditional police,” Fawcett added. “I think we’re all coming to understand that we need to have more than police. We need to have people with mental health training and greater understanding of addiction so they’re deescalating situations rather than taking sometimes an aggressive approach that might escalate the situation and increase violence.”
Erin McClelland, a project manager in the county’s Department of Human Services who ran for executive but did not meet a March 7 filing deadline, pointed to the 911 service as one of the county’s most important functions. The center has been chronically understaffed, and McClelland said the executive must ensure “those workers are not being overworked to the level that they are. We don’t want people on hold when they are calling 911.”
Police reform on the back burner?
Weinstein, the candidate most focused on crime and safety, said the city’s current challenges are caused by “just a combination of all things. There’s no one specific reason that the crime is escalating the way that it is.”
He has critiqued the city’s current leadership for lacking a plan to deal with crime. “Whatever they’re doing in the City of Pittsburgh, it’s not working,” Weinstein said. “I’m not blaming anyone, I’m just saying you have to have a plan. Nothing works without a plan.”
Gainey’s press secretary, Maria Montaño, brushed off Weinstein’s criticism, calling it “obvious campaign fodder.”
Weinstein’s own proposed plan includes reopening the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center. He echoed 2022 comments by Gainey and President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark, saying that teens who commit serious crimes are being turned loose due to the center’s closure and committing more crimes.
He also has pitched a more proactive role for the county’s police force, saying he would have county cops patrol Downtown and in other municipalities where need arises.
A recent move by County Executive Rich Fitzgerald could begin to alter the county police force’s role along the lines of Weinstein’s proposal. After sustained complaints from Downtown residents requesting a larger police presence, Fitzgerald announced plans for the county police to patrol Downtown to supplement city cops. Gainey has been publicly quiet on the matter, neither praising the move nor showing disapproval. A city police union official said implementation of the idea could earn an unfair labor practice complaint. The county said the patrols ended March 7, after about a month.
Fitzgerald also recently upped the county’s investment in violence prevention, committing $50 million toward community organizations taking public health approaches to curbing gun violence.
For all the unknowns about the direction of county government after 2023, one thing is certain: The next executive will have to work with Gainey, whose term runs through 2025. Gainey ran in 2021 on a reimagining of the city’s police, but after a year in office, the mayor is not receiving much praise from 2023 candidates.
Even Innamorato, who received Gainey’s endorsement, answered carefully when asked her opinion of Gainey’s record on police and safety. “I don’t think being critical of people that we are tasked with working with is very helpful,” she said. “Mayor Gainey and the next county executive will have to work closely together to ensure we create a region that is thriving.”
Bennett, another progressive, said of Gainey’s public safety record, “I think that he’s trying.”
Montaño addressed the criticism from candidates, saying, “We know we have work to do in order to make our vision reality, but we are committed to our public health-based approach to public safety." She pointed to a new public safety center Downtown and 176 recovered firearms as signs of progress.
None of the candidates are running with police accountability as a centerpiece issue, in line with a clear political shift that has occurred around the country since Gainey’s election.
Candidates are placing an emphasis on co-response and a holistic approach to public safety, along with steady support for police departments. The steadfast and fervent calls for police reform that escalated during the 2020 protests of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police have mostly cooled among public officials and Democratic candidates.
Even the county’s top police reform initiative of recent years, a newly created independent police review board, has received little to no mention from candidates.
This story was updated to reflect McClelland's recent exit from the race.
This story was fact-checked by Terryaun Bell.
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're glad to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward. However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us. Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.
We don't have paywalls — but your support helps us bridge crucial information gaps.
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're glad to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.