Activist community

Pittsburgh community leaders call for action after gun violence spikes in 2022

As we told you in First part of our special featurethe city is struggling to attract applicants and nearly 300 officers could be retiring right now.

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

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

Target 11 investigator Rick Earle spoke with local leaders, community activists and police on both sides of this contentious issue that impacts your safety.

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

Hours later, shots were fired at a South Side clothing store.

This could become one of the deadliest years for Pittsburgh in decades.

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

“I have to say yes, but I’m not surprised,” Byrdsong replied.

Byrdsong has been on the frontlines most of his life, delivering programs to steer young people away from a life of crime.

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

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

“No one in this neighborhood is saying we don’t want the police in our neighborhood or that we’re being watched too much. You go to Homewood and ask people who want the police out; there is nobody,” said former mayor Bill Peduto, who met protesters outside his home to discuss clashes with police during Black Lives Matter marches.

“I think our residents as a whole are saying, you know, they want more police in their communities,” council chair Theresa Kail Smith said.

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

“Well, you know what, in certain areas we need a police presence. But for the record, let me say we can’t control ourselves,” Byrdsong said.

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Byrdsong thinks it’s a lack of job opportunities, housing and job training, and easy access to firearms.

“How do these 13, 14 and 15 year olds get these guns?” Byrdsong asked.

“Your position is that you just can’t keep throwing the police at it?” Earle asked during an interview with Councilman Ricky Burgess.

“We know it doesn’t work. We tried that in the 90s,” said Burgess, who thinks it will take a multi-pronged approach with everyone on deck, including community services like outreach and counseling programs as well as a massive redevelopment of communities that he says have been neglected for years.

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

Following protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis while he was in police custody and calls for defunding the police, Burgess introduced a package of police reform bills and called for a hiring freeze for all new hires.

There have been no academy courses for 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 less than 300 in 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 who decide to locate here and have businesses here. Your police force is collapsing from within,” said police union president Bob Swartzwelder.

The council also passed Burgess-backed legislation prohibiting police from stopping drivers for minor infractions.

And some officers tell Target 11 in light of that and the accusations of over-policing, they’re still visible and available, but no longer taking a proactive approach. Some officers believe this is one of the reasons crime is on the rise.

We asked the chef about this approach.

“I mean, I could see how it could play on people because often times they get mixed messages about what people want to do, not just here but across the country. But you know we are the police. We are stepping in to help people and we are going to do everything we can to do that,” Swartzwelder said.

“You are losing police officers. You can’t bring in police to do the job. You have no academy classes and crime is rampant. What are you doing?” Earle asked Swartzwelder.

“Leadership has to make a decision, period. This is about leadership. This is the responsibility of law enforcement leadership and political leadership. What is that? 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 to perform. And when you see crime going up, they tell you the police are going to do what they are required to do, but no more,” Swartzwelder replied.

The police union may soon have some answers. Mayor Ed Gainey, who took office in January, has given the police chief 100 days to come up with a plan moving forward.

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