Pittsburgh police say success with South Side patrols prompted Downtown changes

By Megan Guza / PIttsburgh Post-Gazette

The increased police patrols in Downtown Pittsburgh — announced Monday in response to a string of high-profile assaults around the Central Business District — will be modeled off of the department’s targeted South Side patrols that officials say have curbed unruly behavior along the popular stretch of bars and clubs.

Pittsburgh police had already doubled the number of officers assigned to Downtown over the past year — from 10 last summer to 20 this year. And, as of Friday, there will be another four to six officers on duty in the neighborhood for three-quarters of the day.

The shifts for those four to six officers are 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 2 p.m. to midnight. The high visibility car — a cruiser that will patrol with a steadily lit-up light bar — will be out from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

“Summertime is getting even busier Downtown. More people are coming back to work,” said Tim Novosel, commander of the police bureau’s Zone 2, which includes the Central Business District.

The stepped-up patrols began Friday, and police officials announced the measures Monday. They come after a series of seemingly random assaults around Downtown, most of which happened during daylight hours.

Cmdr. Novosel said the idea is that more officers means more visibility, and more visibility means less crime. He said the bureau has seen success with that formula on the South Side.

The targeted patrols along East Carson Street, which is among the city’s main entertainment districts, began last summer after violent crimes began to creep in alongside the lower-level alcohol-fueled issues common to the stretch of bars.

“The big part that’s going to be similar [in Downtown] is how visible [police] are going to be,” he said. “You go down South Side, you see police officers.”

The South Side patrols, however, are only in place Thursday through Sunday, whereas the patrols in Downtown will be every day.

Cmdr. Novosel said that incidents in Downtown are scrutinized far more than incidents in other parts of the city, and that’s because of the very nature of the neighborhood — the Central Business District.

“We have a lot of people down here, it’s a very visible area,” he said. “Little incidents become big overnight.”

On June 5, an 18-year-old woman was physically assaulted near Smithfield Street and Sixth Avenue. Sofia Mancing, an intern at Flying Scooter Productions Downtown, was walking to her bus stop about 5 p.m. when a woman struck her in the back of the head with a shoe.

The suspect, identified as 27-year-old Shurontaya Festa, is charged with aggravated assault and disorderly conduct in connection with the alleged attack. According to the criminal complaint, Ms. Festa told police she believed the other woman was “stalking her.”

At the time, Public Safety Director Lee Schmidt called the attack an extremely unfortunate isolated incident — one that “can occur in any community.”

Three weeks later, a 73-year-old man was walking on Fourth Avenue around noon when a stranger approached, chased him, and hit him in the head. The blow caused him to fall to the ground. Jameel Huff, 24, is charged with aggravated assault.

On July 1, a still-unidentified man fired at least twice toward a group of people standing outside a store on Liberty Avenue. No one was injured in the incident, which happened shortly before 8 p.m. Police said the suspect opened fire with a semi-automatic handgun. No arrests have been made in that incident.

Assistant Chief Christopher Ragland disputed the notion that a dearth of officers has led to an increase in violence in the Central Business District.

“I wouldn’t say we have a lack of officers,” he said but noted that “we are under our budgeted number and we did have a number of officers leave [this month].”

The city has traditionally budgeted for 900 officers bureau-wide but officials dropped that number to 850 in this year’s budget, acknowledging that even with new recruits cycling through the police academy, 900 was unattainable.

Assistant Chief Ragland said many of the recent retirements came from officers assigned to investigative or administrative positions, meaning “our frontline first responders have not been hit as hard as some of our other branches.”

The commander, too, pushed back at the idea that Downtown is less safe than any other neighborhood.

“I come Downtown on my personal time. I know a lot of people who do,” Cmdr. Novosel said. “I would never warn anyone going Downtown that it’s not safe.”

While the increased patrols have already gone into effect, the bureau’s high-visibility patrol car is still in the works. That dedicated police vehicle will patrol Downtown with its light bar steadily lit but not flashing.

It’s a strategy known as “cruise mode” — a way to signal a police presence in the area without the urgency of flashing lights and sirens. Other cities across the country have implemented their own versions of cruise mode, and Cmdr. Novosel said the bureau consulted with those cities that have seen success, although he could not provide specifics.

“I can’t predict the future, but it’s going to help us be more visible,” he said. “There are going to be more officers down there, there are going to be more people around more often — closer to anything that would happen. Maybe someone will see more police officers and they won’t commit a crime.”