The Calvin M. Hall Public Safety Center, not only serves as a police station for the Northview Heights community, but as a community space! Residents use the space for meetings and to conduct programming. We spoke to Reggie Smith, the Public Safety Coordinator, to learn more about the center.
Q: What inspires you?
A: Having the opportunity to create opportunities for youth in the community.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge?
A: Blending together the diverse refugee community in Northview Heights with three different languages.
Q: Is there a particular memory that stands out for you?
A: This past Halloween we held a trick or trunk outing. This is the first time anyone has ever done this in Northview Heights. The smiles on all of the kids faces made this event very special to me!
Q: What are you most proud of?
A: Bringing back little league baseball to the Northview Heights community after a 20 year absence. It’s provided a place for youth during the Summer!
The HOPE Diversion Program, piloted by One Northside, aims to divert young, low-level victimless crime offenders out of the criminal justice system. Thus far, the positive impact is astounding with 94% of program participants not re-offending. Recently, we had the chance to interview Jeff Williams, the Diversion Program Director at Foundation of HOPE, to learn a little more about the program and the impact it has had on Northside families.
Q: What attracted you to the HOPE Diversion Program?
A: I grew up in a community where there was no trust in the police. So, when it came time for me to select a major in college, I decided on Political Science with a minor in Criminal Justice. I have intentions of making a difference in the community where I live and work, specifically related to criminal justice reform. The HOPE Diversion Program is designed to do just that, strengthen police-community relations in an effort to reduce crime in the community.
Q: What inspires you?
A: I am inspired by the smile on a mother’s face when they see the impact on their child’s life by receiving a second chance to do the right thing.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge?
A: Our biggest challenge has been gaining the trust of families. We make every attempt at meeting the families and youth where they are in life to help gain their trust and openness.
Q: Is there a particular moment or memory that stands out for you?
A: There is one particular memory I have when a 20-year-old student and her father cried in the courtroom after her charges were dismissed. This young lady was one of the initial participants in the program and her circumstance is what the Diversion program is designed for. She was charged with underage drinking, public-intoxication and being in possession of an illegal and controlled substance. Although this was her first offense, she could have received a sentence of up to 9 months in a county jail if convicted. However, after participating in the Diversion Program for 9 months, the Judge dismissed her case.
The families being positively impacted love the program as well. Debra, a parent of a recent participant in the Diversion Program, told us that she “loves how dedicated the staff are with the children” and that “they give our kids hope and opportunities without getting judged”. She believes the Diversion program “actually helps and changes kids, and has put my son on the right path”.
The HOPE Diversion Program is a collaborative partnership that involves the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, Allegheny County Juvenile Probation, Housing Authority City of Pittsburgh, District Attorney’s Office, and the 5th Judicial District Court of PA.
When 17-year-old Alayah Thompson first stepped into the juvenile probation office after getting in trouble for fighting Downtown, she saw a scary-looking probation supervisor and worried she might be going to jail.
But instead, the probation supervisor told her she’d been flagged to participate in a pilot program on the North Side, a diversion program designed to help young, first-time and low-level offenders get rid of or keep criminal charges off their records.
She’d need to take part in the voluntary program for six months, and if she did what she was asked to do — whether attending workshops, counseling or community service — she’d be free and clear at the end.
Alayah, who lives in Spring Hill, thought it’d probably be lame. But six months later, she’s so involved in the diversion program that she plans to keep attending activities even after her juvenile case is closed.
“They showed us there is something more to life than just doing bad stuff,” she said Tuesday. “Even though a probation program isn’t good, [they] make it good.”
She enjoys the program’s field trips and excursions, she said, and was touched when a day earlier a staff member took her job hunting.
“It’s not a punishment coming here, it’s more like a reward,” she said. “Because they really care about you.”
The pilot program, which is limited to the North Side and targets people ages 12 to 26, has since July 2017 been facilitated by Foundation of Hope, a nonprofit on West North Avenue. It so far has seen some early success — of 60 youths who’ve participated, to date only four have committed another offense, program director Jeffrey Williams said. He based that count on follow-up with families, police and probation.
The program’s small-scale but intensive approach requires collaboration between police, prosecutors, judges, nonprofit workers and probation officers, all of whom are working toward the same goal, said Kimberly Booth, Assistant Chief Probation Officer in Allegheny County.
“We don’t want kids in the system who don’t need to be there,” she said.
Criminal records, even for juveniles, can make it difficult to secure financial aid or jobs later in life, she said. The idea behind the diversion program, Mr. Williams said, is to give young people a “second chance to do the right thing” before they get mired in the criminal justice system.
From July 2017 through July 2019, 93 people were referred to the diversion program, according to an internal report, and 60 agreed to participate. The median age for participants is 16, and all but one participant was black. So far, 37 males and 23 females have participated, Mr. Williams said.
Participants most often were referred to the diversion program by Allegheny County Juvenile Probation but also are referred by Pittsburgh police officers, the city’s housing authority and Propel Northside, a charter school.
The agencies have referred youths to the program after the teenagers or young adults were charged with theft, drug offenses, assaults, disorderly conduct, trespassing and similar charges like loitering or shoplifting, according to the report. Sometimes, a police officer will make a referral before the youth commits any crimes, if the officer notices the teenager has begun to hang out with a bad crowd or is otherwise at risk, Mr. Williams said.
“They’re trying to be proactive and give kids some opportunities and some services before they reach that threshold point on the fence,” Mr. Williams said.
Juvenile probation sees around 1,500 cases annually, Ms. Booth estimated, and while probation officers can send kids to a variety of services like drug and alcohol treatment or counseling, it’s a piecemeal system with a variety of different providers, locations and personnel. The diversion program offers a more holistic approach with significant, long-term and personal support for individuals.
“We have a lot of different things we can do, but nothing that was ever a program that can be a one-stop shop,” Ms. Booth said. “And it costs the kids nothing; it costs us as a department nothing. It’s beautiful. The community put it together, and the community is funding it.”
Looking to expand
Mr. Williams works with an annual budget of under $300,000 provided by the Pittsburgh Foundation, Buhl Foundation, Dollar Bank and Pittsburgh Presbytery. For now, the participants in the diversion program must either live on the North Side or have committed the offense on the North Side, although Mr. Williams and the program’s partners hope soon to expand citywide.
“We didn’t do this in any easy area — we did this on the North Side,” said Dann Carr, juvenile probation officer supervisor. “And it’s working.”
Diana Bucco, president of the Buhl Foundation, which has made a 20-year commitment to improving the North Side, said the diversion program started at the urging of Zone 1 police Cmdr. Christopher Ragland.
“That’s what brought this whole thing together,” she said, adding that the cooperation among agencies has been one of several promising outcomes created by the program. District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. has endorsed the program as well, spokesman Mike Manko said Friday.
Foundation of Hope creates a customized plan for each participant, depending on that person’s particular needs, executive director Jody Raeford said. Sometimes, it’s just a job.
“We had one kid who was soliciting in a gas station, trying to pump gas for people to make money,” Mr. Raeford said. “He’s not a bad kid, he’s just trying to earn money. Management didn’t want him on the property and he kept coming back, so they called the police who arrested him for trespassing — we found employment for that child.”
For Jemicka Moore, 42, the diversion program — and Mr. Williams in particular — offer a dependable source of help as she faces trouble with her 14-year-old son, who previously completed the diversion program but has since reoffended and returned to the program.
Sometimes, her son won’t come home, but he still goes to school, work and to diversion program events.
“My son completed the program, but Mr. Jeff never stopped being involved with him,” she said, adding later, “I know any type of day I can pick up the phone and call Mr. Jeff.”
For Alayah, a dinner at a Japanese steak house — designed to help kids understand etiquette and broaden their horizons — convinced her that Mr. Williams’ diversion program was different and worthwhile. Other excursions included a trip to Cedar Point Amusement Park in Ohio and Pirates games.
“A probation officer, they would not be doing that,” she said. “They’d be pee testing you and coming to see how you’re doing.”
Originally published on July 21, 2019
SOURCE: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
With a ceremonial cutting of police tape instead of a ribbon, residents and officials celebrated the opening of a new public safety center in Northview Heights Tuesday.
The center, which has space for community programming, will serve residents of the North Side public housing communities of Northview Heights and Allegheny Dwellings, and will be staffed by six police officers and one sergeant tasked with community policing.
Residents will “see the same officers day in and day out,” to build community trust, said city Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich.
The center came about through a collaboration between the city, its housing authority, police, the Buhl Foundation, which is focused on the North Side, and residents of Northview Heights and Allegheny Dwellings.
“Their support and hard work has made today possible,” police Zone 1 Cmdr. Christopher Ragland said.
“My fellow officers and I are committed to this partnership, and we are going to work with the community, in the community,” said Sgt. Joseph Lewis, who will be the supervisor at the center.
The center is housed in a converted two-story apartment in the Northview Heights complex. Earlier this year, board members of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh approved more than $270,000 to convert the building to house the center and approved spending $4.5 million for three years of “above baseline” policing.
Mr. Hissrich said the police officers will not be stationed there 24 hours a day, but added that the hours that the location will be staffed would depend on the need.
“I believe that the community and the police need to work together as partners,” said Northview Heights resident Olivia Bennett. Having officers on site will allow both police and residents to “recognize the humanity in one another,” she said.
“I care deeply about the safety of this community,” resident Siraji Hassan said at the ceremony to mark the opening. “I have a family and want them to feel safe here. I know all of you care about this, too. I believe this can help us move forward toward that goal.”
Northview Heights is the largest public housing community in Pittsburgh, with more than 500 homes. Allegheny Dwellings, in nearby Fineview, is in the first phase of an overhaul to transition from a nearly 300-unit public housing complex to a mixed-income community.
Originally published on December 4, 2018
SOURCE: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh will supply six police officers and a supervisor to safeguard two public housing complexes in the North Side, city council decided Tuesday.
Members voted 8-0 to approve the plan for Northview Heights and Allegheny Dwellings, lining up city police to supplant private security for day-to-day active patrols. The police bureau will take internal volunteers for the task, which will include specialized training for those chosen to work and cultivate community outreach at the properties, according to the Department of Public Safety.
They should be in place by September, said Christopher Ragland, the Zone 1 police commander. The change follows a consensus among residents, who “prefer the enhanced police presence,” said Chuck Rohrer, spokesman at the city housing authority.
“There’s something to be said when you see the same officers day in and day out,” said Wendell Hissrich, the city public safety director. City officers now respond to the complexes when problems escalate into law-enforcement issues, he said.
With dedicated neighborhood resource and outreach officers on hand to learn the neighborhoods and talk with residents, the city hopes to prevent major conflicts, Mr. Hissrich said. Federal money will cover the three-year, $4.5 million agreement, according to the housing authority.
“It fits perfectly into our model of community outreach. It fits right into our model of reducing violent crime and disorder. And I think it fits right into our model of where we go in the future,” police Chief Scott Schubert said.
If the effort is effective, Chief Schubert said, “it can be replicated in other communities, as well.”
Meanwhile, OSA Global will keep providing security at a Northview Heights high-rise building for senior citizens and people with disabilities, Mr. Rohrer said. The contractor also will continue staffing Northview Heights guard stations that serve as identification checkpoints, he said.
“We’re excited about the community policing practices that the city police plan to employ and believe that their consistent presence is going to help further deter crime and improve community relations,” Mr. Rohrer said in a statement. “They’ve achieved great results with this strategy, and we look forward to seeing it extend to our two largest public housing communities.”
Originally published on April 3, 2018
SOURCE: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Two Pittsburgh public housing complexes may soon be regularly patrolled by dedicated city police officers instead of private security in a bid to improve safety and community-police relations on the North Side.
Housing Authority officials took the first step toward a three-year, $4.5 million agreement with city police to provide “above baseline patrols” to Northview Heights and Allegheny Dwellings last week when the authority’s board voted to allow executive director Caster Binion to enter the agreement with the city.
The details of the arrangement are still being negotiated, but people familiar with the proposal said the hope is to create several new city police officer positions and have those officers work solely with the communities in Northview Heights and Allegheny Dwellings, as well as to open at least one mini-station in the community as a base for those officers.
Neither Housing Authority nor city officials would provide any details about the potential three-year deal this week. Housing Authority spokesman Chuck Rohrer would not say precisely what constitutes “above-baseline” policing or why these sites were selected. Pittsburgh police spokeswoman Alicia George also declined to answer questions, saying the contract between the city and the authority is not finalized.
Diana Bucco, president of the Buhl Foundation, which has made a 20-year commitment to improving quality of life on the North Side, said the potential deal is a “real commitment” to community policing.
“It’s about enabling our police to focus more on public safety,” she said. “In recent history, we as the public tend to think about policing as law enforcement, and what the police want is to be about public safety. So community policing is about having beat cops in a community, getting to know the residents so residents and police can work together in creating a safer community.”
That’s what community members want too, said Joanna Deming, executive director of North Side neighborhood group Fineview Citizens and Perry Hilltop Citizens Council. Her group is supportive of having additional officers, but wants to see police who are community-minded and are not detached from the areas they patrol.
“We don’t want to have another summer like last summer,” she said. During a nine-day stretch in June, two daylight shootings in Allegheny Dwellings left three people shot and left residents rattled.
Ms. Bucco said the $4.5 million price tag comes from a general estimate of costs, but that the specifics of the arrangement haven’t been decided because organizers hope to include residents in that decision-making process.
“It’s the dollars the Housing Authority would pay to hire a private company but instead, have the City of Pittsburgh police play that role and connect it to a larger ecosystem of public safety,” she said.
Housing Authority board member and City Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess said he favors the arrangement because city police have more authority and better training than private security guards.
“The professionalism of the city police is unmatched by any other local entity,” he said. “Not only is the professionalism but the perception of them by the residents is different. They have a higher amount of credibility than other security activities.”
He added that the Housing Authority has in years past paid city police to provide “above baseline patrols.”
“This isn’t new,” he said, adding later, “This is simply a return to something we’ve done in years past.”
Housing Authority officials would not say why they’re now considering the arrangement with Pittsburgh police, but David Weber, chief operations officer for the authority, said during last week’s monthly board meeting that private security is increasingly expensive and ineffective.
The housing authority used to have its own police force, but merged it into the Pittsburgh Police Bureau in 2007 to save money. At the time, the authority agreed to pay the city $1 million annually for three years to provide enhanced police coverage of its communities. That agreement ended in 2010.
Allegheny Dwellings was patrolled by private security guards as recently as last year, but those guards haven’t been around for several months, said Cheryl Gainey, tenant council president at Allegheny Dwellings. After the shootings in June, residents complained that the unarmed guards were not a deterrence to violence.
Housing Authority spokesman Mr. Rohrer did not respond to questions about when and why that private security company stopped patrolling the complex.
Ms. Gainey said the violence has quieted since June, and said most trouble now springs from drug dealing carried out by people who don’t live in the apartments. She’d like to see police crack down on the dealing in the future.
Originally published on February 28, 2018
SOURCE: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
About three months ago, a group of 13- to 16-year-olds who caught the school bus at East Ohio Street and Cedar Avenue on the North Side noticed that the door of the Subway sandwich shop had a broken lock—so they went in and took some chips to munch on while they waited. They did it again the next day. The third day, they did it again, and were arrested—and charged with burglary, a felony.
“We bring them in and learn they aren’t hardened criminals, they’re just kids who knew better but probably didn’t know the gravity of the situation. So we worked with juvenile court to put them in the program” -CHRIS RAGLAND, Zone 1 Police Commander
Before, that felony arrest could have stayed on their record, following them for life, limiting or crippling their chances for success. But thanks to the pilot North Side Diversion Program, those kids can get those charges erased. And Zone 1 police Comdr. Chris Ragland and his officers are glad to be able to take advantage of it.
“We bring them in and learn they aren’t hardened criminals, they’re just kids who knew better but probably didn’t know the gravity of the situation. So we worked with juvenile court to put them in the program,” Ragland said. “There are times in life that are a tipping point; if we can interject at that time, perhaps we can prevent that person’s life from going on a downward spiral.”
“We need to market to the community. We want them to know police are there to serve—not just arrest and incarcerate.”
SYLVESTER WRIGHT, Pittsburgh Police Officer
The program first started in 2016, but was shut down when one of the original partners had to drop out. It started back up in May under the direction of Jeff Williams and is housed at the Foundation of Hope. It is funded by grants from the Buhl Foundation, the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Dollar Bank Foundation, and, in addition to the Pittsburgh police, it takes referrals from the Allegheny County Juvenile Probation office and the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh.
It was initially conceived as a means to offer an alternative to incarceration for individuals aged 13-26 charged with minor, non-violent offenses, but has evolved into a more proactive program.
As Ragland and Williams noted, with minor offenses that would typically be pleaded down to a summary offense with a fine, there was no real incentive to change behavior. Now, officers refer individuals in a broader range of situations—and they are getting services not just to the kids, but to their families, as well.
“We had a 12-year-old kid caught with 70 stamp bags of heroin—that’s a serious charge,” said Zone 1 officer Darrick Payton. “In the past there was no hope for that kid. But the DA, to his credit—especially with the opioid crisis—OK’d him for the program. We have a lot of people on the same page, their minds and hearts in the right place and so is the money. We have the time and the money to do this. People recognize we all have a vested interest in successful children.”
Williams said there is no longer a published set of “divertable offenses.” Referrals are determined on a case-by-case basis—a kid who stole a bicycle, another one who was hanging out at a gas station soliciting customers for spare change, or odd jobs when he should have been in school.
“He hadn’t committed a crime yet, and it took us from October to get his mother to sign off on getting him in the program,” said Williams. “I hadn’t even gotten a plan together for him yet. So I’m following up and I find out he’s in (the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center). Apparently, he tried to steal an iPhone from the store in South Hills Village—how he got there, I don’t know. I’m going to court with him later this morning.”
The community is slowly buying into the program as Ragland, his officers, and Williams get the word out. As long as the offense isn’t violent, even a first-time offender charged with possession with intent—like the 12-year-old—might be eligible. So might a kid charged with possession of a gun.
“Now the DA hasn’t signed off on that, but there could be a situation where a kid is holding a gun for someone, or he got one on the street for protection but has never used it and has no record,” said Ragland. “If we can show that we can maybe get a felony charge dismissed if a kid cooperates—that gets us a lot of credibility with the community, and is a big leap in people coming on board.”
Officer Sylvester Wright, a 23-year veteran and Payton’s partner, said getting the families involved is critical, and this program can help build the relationships that make that happen.
“The biggest benefit is when we meet these kids and say we want to help, they can see that we aren’t running some kind of game on them,” he said. “They begin to trust us and we can establish those relationships. “Helping is something they don’t see. This program is designed to help.”
Williams said he is optimistic about the program’s future.
“It’s still in its infancy. We’re looking to see who we need to serve, we have the referral process down, and we know how to get resources to people,” he said. “We need to market to the community. We want them to know police are there to serve—not just arrest and incarcerate.”
Originally published on March 11, 2018
SOURCE: New Pittsburgh Courier