- Associated Press - Saturday, September 23, 2017

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Under a gray sky that threatened rain, Pittsburgh police Officer Gabriel Figueroa strode across four sets of railroad tracks in East Allegheny and followed a narrow dirt path into a thick patch of trees and bushes.

Sandwiched between the tracks and Interstate 279, the well-trodden path was smothered with trash of all sorts: empty water bottles, food wrappers, plastic bags, food scraps in a Tupperware, an oxygen mask coated in dirt. Two decrepit lawn chairs were set up at the far end of the mess, surrounded by empty stamp bags and trees. Last week, Officer Figueroa found a woman in one of these chairs, trying to shoot up.

On Tuesday he waved a hand at the mess.

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“All this used to be on Virgin Way,” he said.

A few blocks away, that narrow alley runs parallel with E. Ohio Street and was the go-to place in the neighborhood to use drugs, Officer Figueroa said. Now, it’s empty and nearly trash-free, a few scattered needle caps the only remaining evidence of once-rampant drug use.

Officer Figueroa is one of 16 new neighborhood resource officers to hit the streets in the last few weeks as part of a pilot program spearheaded by Mayor Bill Peduto that’s aimed at improving community-police relations.

Each of the officers is assigned to a single city neighborhood and spends his or her entire shift there, getting to know who’s who and what’s what. While regular patrol officers answer 911 calls across an entire police zone - comprising more than a dozen neighborhoods - the resource officers stay put.

The goal, city officials said when the program was announced in April, is for the officers to become a familiar face, earn the trust of community members and spend their time proactively tackling neighborhood problems, rather than chasing 911 calls and rushing from incident to incident.

How that actually plays out day to day varies widely based on both the neighborhood and the officer assigned to it.

After realizing Virgin Way was a neighborhood problem, Officer Figueroa walked through four or five times a day for a month, making arrests, issuing citations and urging loiterers to move along. His efforts seem to have shifted the mayhem to the railroad tracks, he said, and away from the homes and businesses that abut Virgin Way.

It’s allowed residents to breathe easier and improved their quality of life, said David Stacy, a 51-year resident of the neighborhood and long-time member of the East Allegheny Community Council.

“It was constant day-to-day,” he said. “We’re talking needles in the neighborhood, bodily fluids, prostitution - these folks being out of the neighborhood makes a massive, massive difference.”

Now Officer Figueroa patrols the tracks instead of the alley, still making arrests there when he finds people using. He drives laps through East Allegheny during his shifts, and he recognizes most faces.

On Tuesday, Office Figueroa pointed out a woman on the back of a motorbike.

“She works as a prostitute,” he said.

A few turns later, a man walking down E. Ohio Street waved as the officer waited at a stoplight.

“Hey Gabe,” the man called across two lanes, holding up a parking receipt, “This is partially ripped off, is it still good?”

“Yeah, it’s good,” Officer Figueroa shouted back.

“Thanks, Gabe,” the man said.

The light changed and Officer Figueroa drove on.

He took an aggressive approach in the neighborhood on Tuesday, ordering trespassers to move along, stopping a driver with a suspended license and towing the car, scolding a man for nearly cracking open a beer on the street. He chatted with one man - a guy he said he’s cited at least 20 times, for this and that — and heard about his new job.

He stopped by a community meeting and left after 20 minutes, eager to get back to the streets. Stacy, who was at that meeting, said having a single officer dedicated to the neighborhood is critical, and he’s never seen East Allegheny look so good.

“They know the characters, they know who they’re dealing with,” he said. “Having a beat cop, he knows the area and he knows Virgin Way. Nobody would know Virgin Way was there unless they knew, you know?”

On the other side of the zone, Officer Eric Defeo takes a different approach as the neighborhood resource officer in Marshall-Shadeland. During a couple of hours Tuesday night, he spent more time talking with law-abiding citizens than chasing criminals.

He spent 15 minutes chatting with a woman who called about a gray SUV that had been parked outside her house for a month, explaining that he couldn’t tow it because it wasn’t stolen and because its registration and inspection were up to date.

At the end of the conversation, he handed her his cell number and told her not to hesitate to call. He relishes the chance to spend more time with citizens, he said, instead of jumping from call to call.

“People need to see us every day,” he said. “Every single day, multiple times a day. The way our manpower is, and the number of calls we go to, sometimes (officers) are not able to follow up on things as we should. I think people notice that; we handle a call and leave. The one thing I like about this is it gives you the ability to be in one area every single day. And once people see we’re not going anywhere, they’re more comfortable talking to us.”

Later that night, Officer Defeo stopped by an Exxon gas station and ducked behind the counter to say hello to the employees, trading jokes about winning the lottery and splitting the proceeds.

Cleaning up the neighborhood

Drug users, paraphernalia and trash used to fill Virgin Way, a small alley on the North Side. But after several weeks of focused policing by Officer Gabriel Figueroa, the alley is now almost trash-free, leaving neighborhood residents happy. The trash and drug use, though, seems to have migrated just a few blocks away to a desolate spot sandwiched between railroad tracks and Interstate 279.

“Before him, there was no one,” said cashier Bonnie Davies. “No one came to check on us. Now, they’re watching out for us. And it’s a good thing.”

As a group, the neighborhood resource officers are figuring out what works and what doesn’t, Officer Defeo said, emphasizing that each neighborhood is different. Marshall-Shadeland is more residential than East Allegheny; what works there may not translate to another place, Officer Defeo said.

City officials are also evaluating the program on a rolling basis, said Timothy McNulty, spokesman for Mayor Peduto. The neighborhood resource officers detail complaints and problems in reports they send to the mayor’s chief of staff, Kevin Acklin, Mr. McNulty said.

“He takes those issues and makes sure that other relevant city departments, say public works or the building inspectors, know about them,” he said, “to make sure the officers on the ground are getting their findings addressed.”

There are still two empty slots for neighborhood resource officers. When full, each of the six zones will have three, for a total of 18 across the city, according to police.

Currently, neighborhood resource officers are assigned to Downtown, the Middle Hill District, Uptown, Allentown, Carrick, Squirrel Hill, Shadyside, Hazelwood, Homewood, East Hills, Lincoln-Lemington, Elliott, Sheraden and Beechview, in addition to East Allegheny and Marshall-Shadeland.

“None of us really know how this should shake out,” Officer Defeo said. “It’s a learning experience for all of us. The more time we spend in these roles, the better understanding we have of where we should steer the program. Whatever way this ends up in the end, it’ll be largely from our experiences, and trial and error.”





Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, https://www.post-gazette.com

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