PIRC Up: Languishing crime-reduction program getting new life from new administration | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

PIRC Up: Languishing crime-reduction program getting new life from new administration

"Very few other strategies can produce any results; this really is all there is."

PIRC Director Jay Gilmer
PIRC Director Jay Gilmer

When the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime was launched in 2010, it offered the hope of reducing Pittsburgh's rising homicide rate. Cities where similar programs were implemented have seen decreases in homicides of as much as 30 percent.

But since PIRC's  inception, Pittsburgh's homicide rate has barely declined — two years in, the number of homicides was roughly the same as it was the year before the program began and  the initiative itself has stagnated since 2012.

That could change under the administration of Mayor Bill Peduto, who will be hiring a new public-safety director and chief of police, two positions integral to PIRC's future. And PIRC is already moving forward with new components of its program, having recently launched a support group for ex-offenders.

"Since its inception, PIRC has been largely ignored both by the administration and the police themselves," Peduto says. "We want to enhance it ... and work with outreach directly to those that have been involved in crime and try to find opportunities to get them out of crime."

PIRC is a homicide-deterrence strategy, designed to reduce gang- and group-related homicides by directly engaging with the offending population at call-in sessions. PIRC is based on the "Ceasefire" model developed by City University of New York professor David Kennedy, who first implemented the model in Boston. During his time there, youth homicides took a 70 percent dive and the city's overall homicide rate decreased by 30 percent.

In January 2012, PIRC produced a report on the program's progress. According to the report, homicides fell by 20 percent and gun violence fell by 16 percent in Pittsburgh between the start of 2010 and the end of 2011. PIRC began operations in July of 2010.

But according to the annual report by the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, the city's homicide rate didn't actually change from 2009, the year before PIRC started, to 2012. In both years, homicides numbered 40. However, that number is lower than the 10-year average homicide rate of 54.

The program was first supported in Pittsburgh by District 9 Councilor Rev. Ricky Burgess, whose district suffers from the highest crime rates. PIRC receives $300,000 annually; the funds are split between its service-provider partner, Goodwill, and community-outreach partner, Youth Opportunities Development.

YOD is tasked with street outreach and finding at-risk individuals or those already engaging in criminal activity to connect them with social services. Goodwill is tasked with providing those services such as education, employment opportunities and housing assistance.

"[Our partners] help us to get a greater understanding of street dynamics and get people to call in," says Jay Gilmer, PIRC's director. "They know who the hottest people on the street are so they can encourage them to call us."

But one component of PIRC was largely absent long before leadership in the public-safety department was shaken up. Since 2011, PIRC has stopped doing "call-ins," a tactic in which police, community groups and service providers meet with gangs to provide them with an alternative to criminal activity by connecting them to employment and education opportunities offered through PIRC's social-services provider.

Call-ins are the crux of the Ceasefire model. During these sessions, members of the city's various groups involved in criminal activity are given an option to accept help, and are told if they choose not to accept, they and their entire group will be punished. Two call-ins were done in 2010 and another was done in 2011.

"When we started, we recognized those groups responsible for most of the violence in the city," says public-safety director Michael Huss. "We called those people who were involved in these groups and they had an opportunity to take the services that PIRC provides. Not all these folks want to change, but the ones that do, we've had some success." Nineteen individuals from the first call-ins contacted PIRC looking for services.

But neither Huss nor Gilmer would say why PIRC hasn't continued to do call-ins, beyond blaming it on uncertainty in public-safety leadership and changes with the police chief.

"We've talked about doing another call-in at some point, [but] we're just not ready to do that," Huss says.

"We're waiting for the leadership in public safety to be decided," says Gilmer. "Once that's done, we're optimistic down the road we'll be able to be more effective."

Police involvement is critical to PIRC. After the call-ins, law enforcement must follow through with their threat and respond if a homicide involves an individual from the groups brought in. Responses include checking in on individuals in the identified groups for probation and parole violations. From May 2011 to October 2012, the police conducted nine responses following homicides and several arrests were made.

"Every time there's a homicide, it's reviewed [to see] whether it's group- or gang-related," Huss says. "When you realize one group is involved, we'll go out and focus on that group, the groups they associate with."

But the responses have also stopped. The last was done in October 2012.

While PIRC's impact on homicides is hard to determine, Gilmer says, "If we have prevented even a few homicides, I think that's good." He also contends the Ceasefire model is the best homicide-reduction model because of the reduction in homicides it has produced in cities like Boston.

"I do believe the Ceasefire strategy is the best one in the world," Gilmer says. "Very few other strategies can produce any results; this really is all there is."

Others have been critical of the program. In a subcommittee of Mayor Peduto's transition team members recommended changing the PIRC program.

"All of the discussion and ideas that our subcommittee heard stressed proactive rather than reactive presence in the community," says David Garrow, co-chair of the committee. "Their view was that PIRC was more reactive."

The committee recommended refashioning PIRC after models used in Chicago and Baltimore, where law-enforcement officials target criminal-activity "hot spots" and high-risk individuals to prevent gun violence. It differs from PIRC because police responses, where officers check for parole and probation violations, would happen before a shooting occurs, not after. Peduto says he supports taking a more proactive approach.

Meanwhile, PIRC launched a new component of its program in January: a support group open to any ex-offender. Dubbed the Positive Initiative to Reinforce Change, the support group of around 20 individuals meets every Tuesday.

"Services alone weren't getting the job done," Gilmer says. "Until you change the peer group, you're not really changing anything. The attitude adjustment is the hardest part."

The goal of the support group is to surround ex-offenders with positive influences (it's led by ex-offenders who have turned their lives around) and connect them to the social services offered through PIRC. Ex-offenders are asked to develop a kind of life plan to help them achieve their goals in education and employment.

"A lot of times, people get out of jail and they have no idea how to find work that can help to sustain them," Peduto says. "They either find work that provides them little opportunity and an inability to pay bills, or they find the most lucrative career that they can which is going back to crime."

Through its community-outreach partner YOD, PIRC is also shifting its focus to working more with community members.

"We do try to get more facts out to community members about what they can do in their streets," Gilmer says. "Most of the people who are committing homicides have prior arrests, so they aren't allowed to be hanging out with the wrong people. So if they're doing that, I'm sure their parole officer would like to know about it."

In this way, individuals can be active participants in keeping their communities safe. They can report parole violations to law-enforcement officials and put individuals engaging in criminal activity in jail before they commit a homicide.

And despite how PIRC has changed, Gilmer believes the program has had an impact. In the first seven months of the program, PIRC received 27 calls from at-risk individuals requesting services. While four dropped out and two didn't require services, the rest received help with employment, emergency financial assistance and obtaining their GED.

"There has been a lot of accomplishments, a lot of achievement," Gilmer says "There are a lot of people who have done really well who have gotten services from us."

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