City controller: Pittsburgh hasn't launched team of social workers to help police despite $5M budget
PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - The city promised a program billed as a way to keep funding the police while giving them help to address problems outside their skill set.
It involved establishing a team of social workers to respond to non-violent incidents, freeing up officers to handle other cases. But three years and $5 million later, it's yet to launch.
Out of the Black Lives Matter protests of three years ago, then-Mayor Bill Peduto proposed the creation of a new Office of Community Health and Safety -- a team of social workers who would unburden the police by responding to incidents involving those who are homeless, struggling with addiction and mentally ill.
"The role of the officer is critical but there are other roles that would be better served by social workers than by police officers," Peduto said.
But while other cities around the country have established those teams, Pittsburgh still hasn't.
"We've had this unit up and running, at least funded, for three years now but they've failed to launch," said Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb.
Under Peduto, the office said it was studying operations in other cities while hiring and training social workers. And while the Gainey administration embraced the idea as a central part of its Plan for Peace, Community Health and Safety has yet to respond to a single call.
"We talk about it. We say great things about it, but nothing happens, and you wonder why, because funding has been available," Lamb said.
The office has 15 employees and had $5 million budgeted for prevention efforts last year. But according to the controller's office, it spent only $100,000 dollars of that money, saying the response model is still under development.
Sheehan: "You would concede that idea of developing a co-responding bureau with the police has taken a long time."
Chief Operating Officer Lisa Frank: "It's a hard thing to do. It's a hard thing to do."
For its part, the Gainey administration says it's been continuing to develop that unit to respond to situations with police but the process has been a thorny one, involving creating the right model and intensive coordination and training.
"You can't just put police and social workers into a car and say, 'good luck.' They need training and they need training together," Frank said.
In the meantime, Frank says Community Health and Safety has engaged in other initiatives such as reducing nuisance 911 calls by reaching out to repeat callers, supplying clean syringes to those struggling with addiction and will begin offering training to Downtown businesses on how best to deal with those experiencing homelessness. But Lamb calls these efforts a distraction.
"We need to get back to the idea of a having co-response, a social service response, when there is a police emergency call, and right now it exists on paper but it doesn't exist in reality," said Lamb.
Frank says that should change soon, promising that six social workers will begin co-responding to police calls this spring. Though small in number, she says the program will grow from there.
"It makes sense to start small. Get it right and grow from there," Frank said.
But Lamb says this continued delay comes at a critical time when police are down close to 100 officers and are in desperate need of help. He says the Gainey administration has been slow in hiring police, picking a new chief and implementing this and other programs.
"We're in the second year of this administration so I think you cut them a little slack but now's the time we should be executing on these initiatives and we're not," Lamb said.
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