Target 11: Pittsburgh community leaders call for action after 2022′s rise in gun violence

PITTSBURGH — As we told you in Part One of our special report, the city is having trouble attracting applicants and nearly 300 officers could retire right now.

With a recent uptick in crime, some say more officers are needed.

Others say that won’t solve the problem. They say it runs much deeper than that.

Target 11 Investigator Rick Earle talked with local leaders, community activists and police on both sides of this controversial issue that’s impacting your safety.

Two teenagers are dead, and nine wounded after a mass shooting on the Northside on Easter Sunday.

Hours later, shots fired in a clothing store on the South Side.

It could become one of the deadliest years in Pittsburgh in decades.

“Is this the worst you’ve ever seen it?” Earle asked when speaking with Rashad Byrdsong, the head of the Community Empowerment Association in Homewood.

“I have to say that it is but I’m not surprised,” Byrdsong responded.

Byrdsong has been on the frontlines most of his life, providing programs aimed at steering youngsters away from a life of crime.

“Violence is a learned behavior and it also has to be unlearned,” said Byrdsong.

This recent uptick in crime has sparked a debate about the role of the police.

“Nobody in that neighborhood is saying that we don’t want the police in our neighborhood or that we’re being overpoliced. You go into Homewood and you ask people who wants the police to leave; there’s nobody,” said former mayor Bill Peduto, who met with protestors outside his home to discuss clashes with police during Black Lives Matter marches.

“I think that our residents overall are saying you know, they want more police officers in their communities,” said Council President Theresa Kail Smith.

“Do you need more police officers?” Earle asked Byrdsong.

“Well, you know what, certain areas we need police presence. But for the record, let me just say that we can’t police ourselves out of this,” said Byrdsong.

Byrdsong believes it’s about a lack of opportunity to jobs, housing and vocational training and easy access to guns.

“How is these 13, 14 and 15 years olds getting these guns?” questioned Byrdsong.

“Your position is, you just can’t keeping throwing police at it?” asked Earle while interviewing Councilman Ricky Burgess.

“We know that doesn’t work. We tried that in the 90′s,” said Burgess, who believes it will take a multi-pronged approach with all hands on deck, including community-based services like intervention and counseling programs along with massive redevelopment of communities that he believes have been neglected for years.

“I want to suggest to you that policing if done in isolation will simply lock people up and they’ll come back five years from now better criminals and the community will get worse,” said Burgess.

In the wake of protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis while in police custody, and calls for defunding police, Burgess introduced a package of police reform bills and called for a hiring freeze on all new recruits.

There hasn’t been an academy class in two years and during that time, more than 100 officers have retired or resigned. Applicants have dropped dramatically from 2,000 a decade ago, to under 300 over the past two years.

“It’s terrifying as a citizen of the city myself. And just for people who want to visit the city for businesses that decide they want to settle here and have businesses here. Your police force is crumbling on the inside,” said Police Union President Bob Swartzwelder.

Council also passed Burgess-backed legislation banning police from stopping drivers for minor infractions.

And some officers tell Target 11 in light of that and accusations of overpolicing, they’re still visible and available, but are no longer taking a proactive approach. Some officers believe that’s one reason crime is on the rise.

We asked the chief about that approach.

“I mean, I could see how that could play into people because oftentimes they’re sent mixed messages of what people want done, Not just here but across the country. But you know we’re the police. We get in this to help people and we’re going to do everything we can to do that,” said Swartzwelder.

“You’re losing police officers. You can’t get police officers to come in to do the job. You don’t have any academy classes and crime is rampant.  What do you do?” Earle asked Swartzwelder.

“Leadership has to make a decision, period. This falls on leadership. This falls on law enforcement leadership and political leadership. What is it? What kind of city do we want to have? How safe do we want it to be and what is the exact mission we want our police officers to perform. And when you see the crime going up, they’re telling you the police are going to do what they’re required to do but no more,” responded Swartzwelder.

The police union may have answers soon. Mayor Ed Gainey, who took office in January, gave the police chief 100 days to present a plan to move forward.

That deadline recently passed, so we expect to hear new details any day now.