Pittsburgh police are seizing fewer guns and arresting fewer people for illegal gun possession citywide, leaving department heads, union officials and community leaders at odds over why.
Police officials say the 22 percent drop in gun seizures through November, compared with the same time period in 2009, is the result of aggressive enforcement and prosecution, task force teams targeting specific neighborhoods, and community programs aimed at spotlighting gun safety and the dangers of gun violence.
Police union leaders say seizures are down because officers are hesitant to be aggressive after the city suspended three of their colleagues while it investigates allegations they beat up a Homewood teenager suspected of carrying a gun. The three officers led the department in gun arrests in 2009.
“I think it’s safe to say that if they were still on the street, they would have made many more arrests and seizures and maybe the city wouldn’t be down more than 100 gun seizures,” said Officer Dan O’Hara, president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1.
One community leader said the weather could be to blame. Others say the reduction in gun seizures hasn’t affected their confidence in the police department.
“It’s not for a lack of dedicated officers,” said Aggie Brose, public safety chair for the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. “These guys work so hard, and they do such a good job. I’d like to think that they seized so many guns in 2009 that it sent a message and there weren’t as many on the streets in 2010.”
From January through November 2009, police made 598 gun arrests in the city, including all six police zones, the narcotics, vice, investigations and specialty units. For the same time period this year, there were 468, Assistant Chief Maurita Bryant said.
She attributed the drop to efforts by police and citizen groups — including task force teams of city, state and federal officers. This year the teams’ investigations led to the arrests of 27 violent repeat offenders in Manchester, 12 in Homewood and 30 in the West End and Carrick neighborhoods.
“These efforts may not stop criminal activity, but it certainly makes people think twice about the consequences,” Bryant said.
O’Hara said the reason for the decline is much more specific. In 2009, Officers David Sisak, Richard Ewing and Michael Saldutte were responsible for 20 percent of all gun seizures citywide, O’Hara said.
The city in February suspended the three officers after Jordan Miles, 18, said they beat him during an encounter on Tioga Street on Jan. 12. The city, along with a federal grand jury and the Department of Justice, is investigating.
In January, while the three were still working, the city recorded 17 gun seizures in the officers’ precinct, Zone 5, which includes East End neighborhoods stretching from Homewood to Bloomfield. Sisak, Ewing and Saldutte were responsible for as many as 10 of those arrests, O’Hara said.
Gun arrests in Zone 5 fell from 133 in the first 11 months of 2009 to 76 during the time period this year.
O’Hara said he believes the situation the suspended officers face scared other officers.
“Other officers see that and might tend to not be so aggressive in going after guns because they are afraid of the backlash just for doing their jobs,” O’Hara said. “Officers are second-guessing themselves ,and that’s dangerous because when you do that on this job, you either end up hurt or dead, or you lose the opportunity to arrest a bad guy and get a gun off the streets.”
Rashad Byrdsong, executive director of the Homewood-based Community Empowerment Association, disagreed.
“(The decrease) could be because dudes are incarcerated or because it’s cold outside. I don’t give the credit to those three officers or any other officers,” Byrdsong said. “There are so many things that could be at play here. But make no mistake, the guns are still out there on our streets.”