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Significant drop noted in Pittsburgh police enforcement

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(The Center Square) — On Dec. 4, 2023, police in Pittsburgh pulled over a man for vehicle and licensing violations.

During the traffic stop, the suspect fled and hit two vehicles. The city issued a press release and the incident made the rounds among local news outlets.

It’s the type of police enforcement that the department has cut back on significantly over the years.

Traffic stops conducted by city police dropped from 29,196 in 2017 to 6,916 in 2023. Arrests dropped from 14,205 in 2019 to 7,180 in 2023, according to data the city released earlier this month. These follow national trends in other departments across the U.S.

The department is also scaling back its patrols of the city, implementing recent changes to how it responds to 911 calls and burglar alarms as it struggles to fill positions with a reduced police force.

The City Council earmarked less for law enforcement in its 2024 budget and cut the number of uniformed police officers from 900 in 2023 to 850 this year. The police department said Thursday it staffs 760 sworn officers, though it has historically had difficulties filling budgeted positions.

The city recently accepted a $315,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to increase recruitment efforts in the police department.

On April 24, police released a video on Facebook explaining new patrol policies after the changes made national news, stating some of the reporting was inaccurate.

The Daily Mail’s story had a headline that read: “Pittsburgh police say they will no longer respond to calls that are not ‘in-progress emergencies’ amid staffing shortages”

Cara Cruz, public information officer for the city’s Department of Public Safety, said police will respond to “priority” calls in person 24 hours a day. She said that policy did not change.

“Priority calls are considered incidents in progress such as shots fired, panic alarms, domestic violence, suicide threats, crashes with injuries, robberies, and burglar alarms,” Cruz said in an email to The Center Square.

Police data state that just 8% of priority calls happen between 3 a.m. and 7 a.m. The police will assign a “Telephone Reporting Unit” during the hours of 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. to dispatch calls that don’t require an “in-person” response by police. A police officer would be dispatched to any call where “a suspect may be on scene, any crime where a person may need medical aid, any domestic dispute, calls with evidence, or where the Mobile Crime Unit will be requested to process a scene.”

The police department’s budget has increased from $105.9 million in 2019 to $123.2 million in 2024. But when adjusted for inflation, the city’s police budget in 2024 was about $6.5 million less than the pre-pandemic year of 2019.

Crime data shows that homicides and non-fatal shootings have varied and show no clear trend from 2018 to 2023. For example, there were 58 homicides in 2018 and 37 homicides the next year. Homicides spiked to 71 in 2022 and then dropped to 52 in 2023.

There were 103 non-fatal shootings in 2018 and that increased to 170 in 2021. The number of non-fatal shootings dropped the next two years going to 137 in 2022 and 118 in 2023.