City of Pittsburgh Public Safety officials addressed neighborhood concerns at the South Side Community Council’s (SSCC) recent biannual public meeting via Zoom.

SSCC President Barbara Rudiak began the presentation by introducing City of Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Lee Schmidt and Zone 3 Commander John Fisher. Questions were prepared by council members and submitted in advance to the Public Safety officials.

First on the list of concerns was a recent homicide on Freyberg Street. Commander Fisher said, year-to-date, Zone 3 has had five homicides and six aggravated assault shootings. On Freyberg Street, it was a robbery and the victim was an entertainer at a local venue. The police have identified suspects in the case, but at the time of the meeting hadn’t arrested them yet.

He said the police will request other agencies get involved in monitoring the entertainment venue on Freyberg Street. Those agencies could include the city’s PL&E, Fire Marshal, and the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) for non-police issues such as occupancy permits.

The commander said the ACHD has “more teeth” for closing places down for non-police issues and they have been helpful in the past. He has also had some success when the owners of nuisance properties have been contacted concerning tenants operating venues such as pop-up clubs and speakeasies and informed the owners of their criminal and civil liabilities in allowing the businesses to operate on their properties.

The Public Safety Department is working with the city’s Law Department to craft an official letter to send to property owners, warning them of the consequences of allowing illegal businesses to operate in their buildings. The commander suggested the SSCC could also send the owners a letter stating potential liabilities and legal ramifications of allowing the business to continue to operate.

Public Safety Director Lee Schmidt spoke briefly to the group, stating he enjoys all the neighborhoods and has been to South Side for operational and personal reasons. “We’re looking forward to finding solutions for you all,” he added.

Director Schmidt said the department has its disruptive properties person back and is able to track problem properties including house parties along with pop-up bars and speakeasies. He reiterated they are working with PL&I, the city Law Department, the county Health Department, state Liquor Control Enforcement as well as the fire marshal.

He noted with PL&I and the fire marshal, concerning problem properties, it’s not just about the occupancy numbers of a structure, but also the use.

Ms. Rudiak asked the public safety officials how they are planning to best manage problems in the neighborhood.

Commander Fisher said last year’s limiting parking and allowing only one-way traffic on East Carson Street wasn’t popular, it was effective. However, for this year it’s “not on the radar yet.” This year, they are planning to be more responsive than reactive.

He said no one can predict whether there will be the same crowds in South Side as were problematic last year.

Commander Fisher said he will be reactive and take a more significant approach, with the permission of Director Schmidt and Police Chief Scott Schubert, “I think it will be noticeable.” It will be a “wait and see” approach, but not a “hands-off.”

“Because my position is, it’s safety first for all involved,” he said.

He pointed out through resignations and retirements Zone 3 is down 15 officers this year over 2021. He said last year he had 15 officers he could dedicate to South Side on Friday and Saturday, more when needed, but this year he doesn’t have that. “I’m having a manpower issue.”

If South Side has two or three “bad weekends” in a row, some people may not like it, but they will do what they have to do to keep people safe, he said.

Commander Fisher expressed interest in reopening the old Zone 3 station as a sub-station, especially its cellblocks, for detaining intoxicated individuals on weekends. However, he acknowledged that there are accreditation issues to be considered. The cellblocks, being old and possibly obsolete, might require updates.

His intention is to provide a secure location where intoxicated people who cannot care for themselves can be held for four to six hours to sober up. After sobering, they would be issued a citation and released. This approach aims to ensure their safety, contrasting with the risks of issuing a citation on the street and leaving them vulnerable to accidents.

Regarding the old Zone 3 station’s capacity, Commander Fisher noted it had 10 cells for males and a larger room, formerly known as a “bullpen,” for females. Plans for updating these facilities include adding cameras for cell monitoring.

Addressing the increase in “train jumpers” and the presence of needles and drug paraphernalia in South Side, Commander Fisher advised residents to call 911 if they witness drug use or find needles. The police or Public Works would then safely dispose of the needles. He mentioned that while rail riders are not unique to Pittsburgh and have been a nuisance, their actions are limited unless they break the law. “We’re kind of limited to what we can do with them unless they are breaking the law. They have a right to be on the streets as well as anybody else regardless of how they look. So that’s a difficult situation,” he said.

Director Schmidt added that Allegheny Health Network is seeking space in South Side to open a center similar to their downtown facility. This center would offer services to the homeless and those with drug problems, and have dedicated staff.

On the issue of illegal parking, Commander Fisher stated that their focus is mainly on weekends. The department deploys four to six motorcycle officers to tag and tow illegally parked cars. Despite putting up signs warning against parking, many drivers ignore them, resulting in ticketing and towing.

As far as opening the old Zone 3 station as a sub-station, Commander Fisher said he was interested in reopening it on weekends, particularly the cellblocks for intoxicated people. However, there are some accreditation issues.

The cellblocks are old and possibly obsolete and may need to be updated.

He said his intent is to have someplace to take intoxicated people, who can’t take care of themselves, and hold them in a safe and secure area for four to six hours to sober up, issue them a citation and send them on their way. As opposed to issuing them a citation on the street when they are intoxicated and leaving them on the street to get hit by a car.

The commander said the old Zone 3 station had 10 cells for holding males and what they used to call a “bullpen,” or one large room, for females. They have a plan for updating them including adding cameras to monitor the cells.

Commander Fisher was asked about what could be done about the increase in “train jumpers” in South Side, along with finding more needles and drug paraphernalia in the neighborhood and along the trails.

If people see what they think is drug use going on, they were encouraged to call 911. If they find needles, they should leave them where they found them and call 911 and the police or Public Works would come and dispose of them.

He said the rail riders aren’t unique to Pittsburgh. Last year, there were several of them that were a nuisance and the police were successful in getting them moved out of the business area.

“We’re kind of limited to what we can do with them unless they are breaking the law. They have a right to be on the streets as well as anybody else regardless of how they look. So that’s a difficult situation,” the commander said.

Director Schmidt said Allegheny Health Network is currently looking for space on South Side to open a center similar to one they have downtown. It could provide services for homeless and those experiencing drug problems and have dedicated staff.

To a question about illegal parking in the neighborhood, Commander Fisher said they focus on the problem, mainly on the weekends. They have had as many as four to six motorcycle officers in the neighborhood, tagging and towing illegally parked cars.

He said they put up signs on the streets warning people to not park there, but the signs are ignored and the cars end up getting ticketed and towed.

“This is an age-old problem on South Side and the perfect storm for you folks. You have residential housing, student housing, and the businesses that are selling alcohol or providing entertainment. It’s never a good mix, a compatible mix. We try to manage it the best we can. We depend on you folks to call 911 and we’ll get a car there as quick as we can,” the commander said.

He said even in the “safety zone” from 12th to 17th streets when the motorcycle officers are tagging and towing illegally parked cars and moving down the street, more cars come in to fill those spaces. “It’s tough to manage.”

Tom Smith is the former Managing Editor of the South Pittsburgh Reporter from 2000 until 2023. Following in his mother's footsteps, he delivered news that changed our world.