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Pittsburghs 911 policy follows police recruitment struggle

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(The Center Square) – Pittsburgh’s recent decision to reroute early morning emergency calls comes one year after the mayor planned to triple police presence downtown.

The policy change, announced Feb. 22, means calls received between 3 a.m. and 7 a.m. for crimes not in progress – including theft, harassment and criminal mischief – will reroute to the Telephone Reporting Unit.

The unit is staffed from 7 a.m. until 3 a.m. the following day, so incidents occurring in the four-hour window will be collected for an officer to follow up with during the morning shift.

The city will also install blue phones that connect directly to emergency services outside all six police zones and the Downtown Public Safety Center for use during those hours.

Cara Cruz, public information officer for the Department of Public Safety, told The Center Square policy change means 12 fewer officers will be on duty citywide.

“Pittsburgh Police do, and will continue to, handle priority calls 24 hours a day,” she wrote in an email. “The chief is redistributing manpower to the shifts where officers are needed most, so as not to overburden the busiest shift (pm), and overstaff the least busy (overnight).”

The phone reporting unit will not field calls for active incidents like shots fired, panic alarms, domestic violence, suicide threats, crashes with injuries, robberies and burglar alarms. The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police only receives 8% of these reports in the early morning hours.

Police Chief Larry Scirotto said staffing challenges forced the change and will make better use of the city’s 740 officers. During a press conference in February, he noted that not all calls need an officer dispatched to the scene, freeing up officers to respond to more urgent incidents.

But, the decision also begs more questions regarding the city’s plan to ease concerns about rising crime downtown. In February 2023, the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy said in a brief that rising crime was “perhaps the most pressing matter before the city and county” for downtown businesses.

That same month, Gainey said he’d increase law enforcement presence in the neighborhood three-fold and build a public safety center staffed 24/7 with officers and social workers.

In what Cruz called “a promise kept,” the latter opened Feb. 21, just one day before the new 911 policy and other changes meant to improve work-life balance for officers were announced.

“Pittsburgh Police are already making great strides in reducing crime downtown and providing crisis response,” Gainey said in a release. “This building will provide crews an open space to better assist those in need of help, support downtown businesses and deal with crime.”

Cruz said the department is also building a team of officers that will work as “adjunct recruiters” to guide applicants through the entire process, from preparing for written and physical fitness tests, background checks, the selection panel, a psychological exam and medical evaluation, among others.

“These are the steps applicants have to go through just to GET to the academy,” Cruz said. “This is where the bureau loses a significant amount of the applicants, BEFORE they even sit in the Academy at day one. This is where the new recruitment team will be placing much of its focus.”