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Pittsburgh police beef up presence on streets for city’s Light Up Night

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Skaters take to the ice around the Christmas tree at PPG Place on Light Up Night Downtown on Friday, November 16, 2012. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
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Fireworks reflect in the Allegheny River on Light Up Night Downtown on Friday, November 16, 2012. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
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Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Justin Sharkey, 4, of Moon rides on his fathers shoulders under the overpass illuminated with snowflake projections in Point State Park on Light Up Night 2012.
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Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Brad Charles, 17, of Ohio Township, flips his bike in front of a holiday light display in Market Square Downtown on Thursday, November 15, 2012. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
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The city lights up and bustles with activity over Market Square on Light Up Night Downtown on Friday, November 16, 2012. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
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Shoppers gather at the booth for Old German Christmas Tuesday November 27, 2012 at the first-ever European holiday market set in Market Square. The Peoples Gas Holiday Market offers vendors in chalet-like booths selling from the local and international community. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
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The Peoples Gas Holiday Market Tuesday November 27, 2012 in Market Square offers vendors in chalet-like booths selling from the local and international community. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
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The ornaments for sale in the Old German Christmas booth Tuesday November 27, 2012 at the first-ever European holiday market set in Market Square. The Peoples Gas Holiday Market offers vendors in chalet-like booths selling from the local and international community. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
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Ice skaters join santa on the rink during a pre-tree lighting performance at PPG Place on Light Up Night Downtown on Friday, November 16, 2012. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
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Radoslav Angelov, 38, of North Side, plays some holiday songs on his accordion underneath a lit up tree on Light Up Night Downtown on Friday, November 16, 2012. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
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Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Pittsburgh police Chief Cameron McLay is introduced during a press conference at police headquarters discuss security for Friday's Light Up Night on Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014.

A wave of gun violence around the city and the possibility of unrest here stemming from events in Ferguson, Mo., have Pittsburgh police ramping up staffing and training in time for Light Up Night on Friday, when hundreds of thousands of people will converge on Downtown.

Pittsburgh police acting Chief Cameron McLay said Wednesday he plans to put patrol officers on 12-hour shifts to handle whatever arises in the next two weeks. He noted the recent escalation in deadly shootings in city neighborhoods and the impending announcement of whether a police officer will be indicted in the shooting death of an unarmed black man in Missouri.

“Quite frankly, it’s an opportunity to get my officers out and more engaged with the public,” McLay said at a news conference at police headquarters in the North Side. “To me, there are no wasted resources when I’m calling extra bodies in early. If everything is going well, it’s a great chance for my officers to celebrate with the community.”

Brandi Fisher, president of the Alliance for Police Accountability, said she spoke with McLay by phone Wednesday about the potential for a local response to a grand jury decision on whether to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown on Aug. 9 in Ferguson.

“I’m more reassured because I have people to call in case something happens,” Fisher said, adding that she doesn’t expect a violent response in Pittsburgh. “I don’t want everyday people getting hurt because they’re upset about injustices. It makes it worse.”

McLay said, “We will be prepared to do what we need to do to protect human life and protect property when necessary, but our interest is not in quelling or suppressing the expression of First Amendment rights. We celebrate that.”

Julia Johnson, 22, of South Side Slopes said she is working with a group of about 20 people to organize a local response to the grand jury’s decision when it is announced. She expects a large crowd, which she said will assemble on the Grant Street sidewalk Downtown outside Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.’s office in the courthouse.

“We want the police to have restraint, and in the situation where things are getting tense, we expect the police to be mindful of de-escalating the situation rather than escalating it,” Johnson said.

McLay will have officers in the patrol zones, who normally work three eight-hour shifts, work 12-hour shifts, potentially until Dec. 2. He said he learned there was violence at previous celebrations and became concerned that impulses to retaliate for recent shootings could erupt during this year’s event.

In 2012, a woman was shot near Market Square during the First Holiday Saturday celebration, a continuation of the Light Up Night festivities. In 2010, one man was shot and fights broke out near the end of the first day of the celebration.

“We start having a series of shootings (lately), some of which appear to be retaliatory … and these are the same groups that will tend to find themselves Downtown,” McLay said. “Now, I start really becoming concerned about the potential public safety issues.”

The officers who usually work the afternoon shift will be available to work Light Up Night and will receive refresher training on crowd management tactics, McLay said.

McLay said plans are in place to cancel normal days off for officers and draw on assistance from other local law enforcement agencies in case there is a major response to the Ferguson decision, though he suspects that is unlikely.

He said he could not provide an estimate on how much the 12-hour shifts will cost.

Margaret Harding is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8519.

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