Boroughs work to keep homicide rates down

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While the city of Pittsburgh’s homicide rate continue to increase, the county’s rate seems to be decreasing. With the year more than half over, there have been 18 out of 50 homicides in the county that occurred outside Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, this time last year there were 25 out of 52.

Ophelia-Coleman
OPHELIA COLEMAN

In 2009, the boroughs in Allegheny County where most of the homicides occurred were McKeesport and Wilkinsburg with eight each and Penn Hills with three. But this year things have changed. With the year more than half over, Penn Hills and McKeesport have the most with four each and Wilkinsburg with two. A few local police chiefs spoke about what is being done in their community to make sure homicide rates do not rise in their areas.

Penn Hills Police Chief Howard Burton said with regard to initiatives to stop the homicides, “It is difficult to stop homicides unless you put officers on every corner (and that is not realistic). These (homicides) are random acts and it cannot be predicted when they will occur. But we are increasing patrols, especially in certain areas. Those areas are based upon call volume and the types of calls we receive.”

He added there are certain areas that the police department has focused on, but he did not say what they were. But along with the increasing number of patrols, Burton said there are also several block programs, a newsletter and most importantly, crime prevention meetings to let residents know what is going on and to address any of their concerns.

“We have a good base of residents and responsive citizens. There is a good relationship between the residents of the community and the police. And I have an open door policy,” Burton said.

He also said many of the major crimes committed in his jurisdiction are not by residents, but by those coming into Penn Hills.

While Wilkinsburg has not had a high number of homicides, Wilkinsburg Police Chief Ophelia Coleman said, “We want to nip it in the bud. Not just homicides, but even aggravated assaults.”

Coleman said although her department has always had a direct and aggressive approach to addressing crime, there are several initiatives that Wilkinsburg has in place to try to address crime, especially homicides. In 2008, the borough instituted a special undercover and covert operations unit to address crime on the streets. She said in the two years the program has been in place, they have gotten more than 200 guns and large amounts of narcotics off the street and turned substantial amounts of money over to the district attorney’s office.

Guns, drugs and money are some of the leading motives behind most of the homicides that occur.

Like Burton, Coleman said her area is getting more outsiders committing crimes than those within her community. “We get a large amount of White men and women from other areas coming into Wilkinsburg to purchase drugs,” Coleman said. “We had one incident where a Ross Township officer followed a couple all the way to Wilkinsburg to purchase drugs, then they went to the KFC to shoot up and that is when they were arrested.”

Along with the Special Operations Unit, Coleman said the borough also holds safety meetings twice a month for the community to discuss any concerns they may have. There are also business meetings for the local owners in the community.

“We find that most businesses are so busy that they often do not relate information to other owners or their employees. So we hold a meeting where they can come to talk about any issues or concerns they may have.”

There is also a youth police academy and citizen and silent complaint forms. But along with the usual initiatives, there have been increased patrols to certain areas that the department receives constant complaints about and foot patrols.

Coleman said one of the best approaches to reducing any type of crime is being alert and building relationships with the people of the community. Like Burton, she also has an open door policy. She wants residents to report things and after they have been handled, she encourages them to call her back and let her know.

“I am getting a lot of response from the community. People usually will, when they know you have their best at heart. I am always going to try to be proactive to do what I need to do. I am going to do the best I can,” Coleman said.

Last month, three of McKeesport’s homicides occurred when individuals entered a home during a birthday party and killed three party-goers. Along with the homicides there were several shootings.

McKeesport Police Chief Bryan Wash­owich said one of the things police are doing is creating a partnership with community leaders, local ministries and the school district to identify conflicts between at-risk youths. By addressing it early, it is least likely to turn into a violent matter.

Also, there is a saturation patrol, which began in the summer that patrols certain areas that are known as high rate crime areas and a Public Safety Patrol Division, which is responsible for more foot and bike patrol.

But not only is it the conflicts between youths that can be an issue, but also adults. The police department is also working with the adult and juvenile probation offices and monitoring social service networks.

“These initiatives seem as if they are working. If we stay steadfast on our saturation patrol and working with the community in addressing conflicts (things will continue to work),” Washowich said.

Washowich agrees good community relationships are the key and said his department has a good relationship with the residents.

Recently, the city of Pittsburgh instituted their Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime program, an initiative implemented in other cities that was credited for a decrease in crime.

Several attempts were made to contact Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and Superintendent Charles Moffatt of the Allegheny County Police Department on whether there were any initiatives planned to address the issues of homicide or a future partnership with the city’s PIRC program, but both failed to get back in time for the article.

Washowich said although he does not know much about the program other than the roundup of offenders, there is a similar initiative in his community.

Coleman said she hopes the PIRC program does work, because one initiative is better than none, but that individuals cannot get caught up in the fact that because it worked in one place it will work some place else.

“We (as law enforcement) can no longer put our finger on someone else’s motive. Not because they are smarter, but because it is ever changing. I do not think there is a quick fix or one program that is going to work,” said Coleman. “I am noticing different trends that I cannot speak about, but we (law enforcement) have to be involved and the only way to accomplish it is by building relationships and being committed to the community we serve.”

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