Pittsburgh Bureau of Police activity dropped, by several key measures, during the first year of Mayor Ed Gainey’s administration, but the historic skewing of arrests and other such actions toward Black males did not budge.
The bureau in recent days released its annual statistical report, an 85-page chronicle of activity by a force that has steadily waned from around 1,000 officers in 2019 to fewer than 800 today. Among the findings, the report shows a sizable drop in overall arrests, traffic stops and park-and-walks between 2021 and last year.
A police spokesperson said this is consistent with national trends since the onset of the pandemic in 2020 but the underlying causes are unclear.
“It’s difficult to pinpoint any one thing that may have resulted in decreased numbers in these areas,” Cara Cruz, the department’s public information officer, wrote in an email.
From the vantage of officers, staffing shortages appear to be a factor.
“You’re losing numbers so you can’t do as much proactive policing,” said Robert Swartzwelder, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police lodge representing the bureau rank-and-file. “It’s probably significantly correlated … You see the number of police officers dropping at the same rate as you’re seeing that activity dropping.”
Anthony Coghill, a city councilor who chairs the public safety committee, said he had not yet reviewed the report but reiterated Swartzwelder’s concerns about the impact of reduced staffing.
“That’s disturbing to me,” he said. “It’s alarming.”
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the reduced activity tracked closely to declining officer counts. The 2022 report did not include updated information on the force’s numbers and demographics. It included outdated numbers that were identical to those in the 2021 report. Cruz said the bureau was working to correct that error.
During his successful 2021 mayoral campaign, Gainey said high arrest rates of Black Pittsburghers reflected a failure to implement community-oriented policing, adding that there was "a serious issue with overpolicing in our neighborhoods, and the numbers don’t lie."
During his first year in office, Black men continued to comprise nearly half of those arrested by the bureau, and nearly three-fourths of those who were stopped and frisked.
In May, Gainey appointed Larry Scirotto to lead the department, following a year-long process to name a successor to former chief Scott Schubert. In announcing his appointment, Scirotto, who identifies as biracial, vowed to restructure the department around violent crime intervention, officer wellness, and community police partnerships.
Cruz pointed out that Scirotto was not leading the bureau during 2022 – the year of the most recent data – but noted, “The statistical data serves as a guideline for where the Bureau can improve and focus efforts to ensure that fair and equitable policing is the primary objective moving forward.”
A spokesperson for Gainey said the administration is aware of “lasting issues” over policing in the Black community and is “continuing to evaluate the systems.”
“One change that has happened is the hiring of a new police chief that understands the need for community building,” said Olga George, Gainey’s press secretary. “Dealing with this issue must start at a place of mutual trust and respect to change those disparities.”
Swartzwelder said it’s difficult, with the data available, to conclusively determine whether police actions reflect "a problem" involving racial bias.
“The metric that’s not being studied is, where is the call volume being generated?" the union leader said. “Who is calling the police? ... Where’s the volume of ShotSpotter alerts coming from?” If calls and gunshot alerts are disproportionately coming from neighborhoods with given demographics, police interactions are likely to reflect that, he said.
If not? “Is it a serious outlier? Well, maybe you do have a problem.”
Scirotto has made similar arguments when asked whether traffic stop data reflected bias.
The annual report indicates that use of force by city officers, which surged in 2020 but fell in 2021, remained roughly unchanged last year.
Earlier this year, the union and the city agreed on a contract that created a first-in-Pittsburgh-history disciplinary matrix governing punishments for policy infractions. It will oversee officer violations going forward.
Disciplinary actions last year were lower than in recent years, but terminations were up. That appears to be driven largely by Gainey's response to the October 2021 death of Jim Rogers, 54, who was shocked repeatedly with a Taser in Bloomfield. The city terminated five officers over the incident.
“Certainly, since Chief Scirotto began his tenure mid-way through 2023, he has been very clear about his expectations and directives for officers to treat every interaction, every call, as an opportunity to build positive relationships in the community,” said Cruz.
People across the political spectrum have criticized Gainey’s handling of the police department during his first two years in office.
Progressives who helped elect him have grown frustrated at a lack of progress on police reform after his 2021 primary election campaign focused in no small part on changing the bureau. They’ve criticized his decision to ignore a consultant’s recommendation to shrink the force’s patrol units significantly.
Meanwhile Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala — the Republican nominee for that post — and unsuccessful county executive candidate John Weinstein have said that Gainey is not supportive enough of the police and is making it too hard for them to counteract crime.
Swartzwelder said the available data doesn't definitively show whether city officers are "dialing it back."
In response to news that the city was dropping its budgeted officer count from 900 to 850, and did not expect to reach 900 officers again until 2027, he said the city will have to decide what it wants from the force. With current staffing levels, he said, the city is "running these officers into the ground."
He added that the union last month filed a grievance after the city barred several classifications of officers from taking time off during a series of large public events running from The Pittsburgh Great Race in September through First Night Pittsburgh on New Years Eve. Under its contract, the city can bar off days for emergencies.
"These are not emergency events," Swartzwelder said. "They're all for fun. And you don't have the personnel for fun."
Rich Lord is PublicSource’s managing editor, and can be reached at email@example.com.
Jamie Wiggan is PublicSource’s deputy editor, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charlie Wolfson contributed.
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Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud 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.
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