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Pittsburgh Politics: “Dangerous” Decisions in Trying Times

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Pittsburgh Politics: “Dangerous” Decisions in Trying Times

Last month, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Police Chief Larry Scirotto announced major operational changes to police staffing in the city.

Effective February 26, officers would no longer be responding to 911 calls that weren’t “in-progress emergencies.” Calls about crimes like criminal mischief, theft, and harassment would instead be rerouted to the telephone reporting unit or to online reporting. Burglar alarm calls would require a “second authentication factor” (i.e., a video or audio showing interior motion, or broken glass) before an officer would be dispatched, because the majority of such calls tend to be false alarms. In addition, between the hours of 3 a.m. and 7 a.m., desk officers would no longer be on duty at any of the six zone stations. Chief Scirotto explained that, “[t]here is not any data to support us having our zones manned by personnel from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. For the very one off instance I can’t make an exception.” Those in need of urgent assistance would have to rely on “blue phones” – call boxes with a direct line to 911.  Only 22 officers would be covering the entire city during some overnight shifts, due to Chief Scirotto’s conclusion that the data doesn’t support a larger allocation of staff: “it’s enough to cover the entire city at those hours when we have 8 percent of the time people are calling.”

The reason for these changes is a law enforcement staffing crunch. In 2020, during the nationwide frenzy to “defund the police,” the Pittsburgh City Council passed laws that included a police hiring freeze and a diversion of ten per cent of the annual police budget towards “evidence-based violence prevention social service programs.” A local news source reports that in 2020, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police consisted of approximately 991 officers and that the city “has historically budgeted” for a 900-number force. Since then, though, retirements, resignations and low recruitment have taken a toll, and numbers continue to dip, down to 740 officers as of this month. The bureau “is losing officers far faster than it recruits them,” and “[o]fficials have acknowledged that there is no hope of getting anywhere near 900 in the foreseeable future.”

A “Crime and Safety Impact Report” released in late 2023 by the advocacy group Our America looked specifically at crime spikes in several mid-sized cities, including Pittsburgh. According to that report, from 2021 to 2022 Pittsburgh experienced an increase in rapes and robberies, “a 46% rise in shootings that left people injured,” and the highest homicide rate in a decade.

Perhaps the new reality of reduced police personnel over the foreseeable future will persuade municipal officials to give up on attempts to override the Pennsylvania firearm preemption statute by enacting illegal laws that prevent responsible citizens from defending themselves.

In 2019, for instance, the Pittsburgh City Council adopted gun control ordinances that included a ban on the use of so-called “assault weapons” and “large capacity” magazines in public places. The ordinances were immediately challenged by gun rights advocates, including the NRA.

Court documents filed on behalf of the defendant City and municipal officials indicated that they were “mindful” of the preemption law in enacting the ordinances, and that “[w]ithout state preemption, the City would have gone further and prohibited the purchase and possession of assault weapons and large capacity magazines.” Counsel for the applicants in the NRA suit predicted that “Pennsylvania courts have repeatedly struck down Pittsburgh ordinances that attempted to regulate firearms in defiance of state law, and we are confident that this latest ordinance will meet the same fate.”

That’s exactly what happened. In 2022, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, en banc, in the separate case of Firearm Owners Against Crime (FOAC), et al., v. City of Pittsburgh, et al., affirmed a lower court’s ruling and struck the ordinances as unlawful and preempted. The court specifically pointed out that in passing the ordinances, the respondents ignored state law. The “City was well aware of [the state preemption law] and the abundance of case law from the Courts of this Commonwealth interpreting the expansive preemptive scope of this statutory provision,” and Pittsburgh’s then-mayor, Bill Peduto, had “acknowledged that he and the City Council lacked the authority to enact the Ordinances.”

Pittsburgh’s new mayor reportedly responded to the ruling by indicating that the City was considering appealing “this dangerous decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, so that local officials across Pennsylvania can do our jobs and keep our constituents safe.” No such appeal has been launched, thereby preserving thousands of taxpayer dollars from a clear case of throwing more good money after bad.

It does raise the question of what, truly, is a “dangerous decision.” Defunding the police force and imposing a hiring freeze that snowballs into a staffing crisis? Wasting public money to pass and defend local laws in the face of clear advice that the laws are unlawful and beyond the city’s jurisdiction? Is it “protecting” residents from violent crime by enacting illegal gun control measures that burden only the law-abiding? Or is it, to quote the legal counsel for the successful challengers’ to the ordinances, the civic officials’ decision to “circumvent the clear edict of the General Assembly in an attempt to alter the legal landscape to comport with their worldview by whatever means necessary”?

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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.