Pittsburgh Police alter response policy

Pittsburgh Police begin talks about de-escalation policy. | Jordan Mondell, Assistant Visual Editor

In cases of simple assault, harassment and terroristic threats, a Pittsburgh police officer will now be required to respond to the scene of the incident.

Before, they didn’t always have to.

Under the rules governing the city police’s crime response system, a 911 operator could relegate 14 crimes, including simple assault and harassment, to an auxiliary system called the Telephone Reporting Unit.

As long as no one was in danger, the TRU would file a police report on the caller’s behalf, which an officer would follow up on, though none would be sent to the scene.

At a public hearing on Tuesday, city council members, public safety Director Wendell Hissrich and police Chief Cameron McLay, among others, met with a handful of community members to discuss narrowing the scope of this police response policy.

If a Pitt student, for example, called 911 to report verbal threats from their significant other, the old policy would have rerouted the call to the TRU, and an officer would only have been sent to the scene if the TRU operator determined the student was in physical danger. With the new policy changes, an officer would be sent to the student’s location regardless of the operator’s determination of danger.

Under the considered changes, simple assault, harassment and terroristic threats — previously among the 14 specified crimes — are being removed from automatic routing to the TRU. The new policy is drafted but not finalized, according to Sonya Toler, a Pittsburgh public safety spokesperson. The new policy will be finalized in the coming weeks.

The diversion of simple assault, harassment and terroristic threats to the TRU raised concerns among council members when McLay first altered the policy to include the crimes on Aug. 15, 2016. At the time and at Tuesday’s hearing, council members questioned the ability of operators to judge the severity of such cases over the phone, particularly in cases of domestic violence where information may be distorted or underreported.

City council member Darlene Harris said the original policy should not have rerouted simple assault, harassment or terroristic threats to the TRU, as it was intended for crimes on property rather than crimes against persons. Harris said that in a closed door meeting with Hissrich, it was agreed crimes against persons would be removed from the policy.

Crimes that will continue to be diverted to the TRU include thefts from vehicles, accidents involving damage to vehicles or property with no injuries or tows and criminal mischief, excluding graffiti. For these smaller crimes ––  which don’t require evidence collection or witness interviews on-scene ––  the police will still file a report, but an officer will not respond to the scene.

The original policy creating the TRU was enacted in December 2005. This policy allowed a caller to ultimately decide whether to report by telephone or to request an officer for these 14 crimes, following a 911 operator’s recommendation.

Because Pittsburgh is listed as a financially distressed municipality under the Municipalities Financial Distress Recovery Act, Act 47, the police force is strained by limited money, resources and manpower. The TRU helps to alleviate this stress by addressing calls requiring only a police report, not in-person officer presence, according to Kathy Degler, commander of support services at the TRU. In 2015, the TRU received over 8,000 calls and filed over 6,000 police reports. Degler said the number of calls and reports sent to the TRU are fairly steady every year.

So far this year, the TRU has received 4,730 calls and filed 3,515 reports. The calls the TRU operators do not file are sent back to 911 operators to either reroute to the police department or because the call could was not completed.

With this in mind, McLay issued an order in August 2016 that took away the option for citizens to request an officer for the specified 14 crimes and declared that these calls would strictly be handled by the TRU. It was possible, under McLay’s order, to avoid having the TRU file a report by requesting to speak with a supervisor.

McLay said the concerns were raised to him about his 2016 order were well thought out. Although to his knowledge no incidents have occurred due to a case of simple assault, harassment and terroristic threats being diverted to the TRU, he still thinks the latest suggestion to remove those three crimes is a good idea.

“It’s a really, really good modification,” McLay said. “I’ve always believed the community does deserve some input into what our police policy should look like.”

McLay stressed that the types of calls handled by the TRU are those that have no evidence to collect, no witnesses in the area and no ongoing risk of victimizations.

Degler said that calls of simple assault, harassment and terroristic threats were rarely taken at the TRU, if they were diverted to them at all.

“A lot of times when my telephone reporting unit personnel would start talking to the complainant, they would say, ‘We can’t take this, they need a police car out there at the scene,’” Degler said.

Judy Bergamasco, a retired 911 operator, said as long as the public has good information on the policy, there should be no problems.

“Remember, these people [911 operators and the TRU operators] are trained to ask specific questions. And if they don’t get the answer they want, they send the police,” Bergamasco said. “No question about it.”

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