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Leaders grapple with solving revolving door of Downtown crimes

Leaders grapple with solving revolving door of Downtown crimes
Leaders grapple with solving revolving door of Downtown crimes 04:11

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- KDKA-TV has been reporting on the increasing crime in Downtown Pittsburgh for months now. City leaders say they're trying to turn it around, but so far, nothing much has changed. In fact, for some, it's become nothing more than a revolving door of trouble. 

Take the case of Arnez Johnson. He's been arrested Downtown more than a dozen times in the past two years for everything from exposing himself in public to indecent assault to fighting, shoplifting, theft and disorderly conduct.

Just in the first three months of this year, police arrested Johnson six times. Each time, they took him to jail. But in most cases, Johnson wound up back on the streets of Downtown the following day.

While his is an extreme case, Johnson, and repeat offenders like him, are a source of unending frustration for merchants, police and a criminal justice system that doesn't seem to know what to do about them.

"We see criminal activity, we take police action and what we find is those individuals get cited, they get arrested, then they come right back out and they reoffend," says Pittsburgh Police Commander Christopher Ragland.

It's the proverbial revolving door.

On Feb. 8, Johnson was accused of blocking women in Katz Plaza and rubbing their backs and buttocks. He was charged with indecent assault, disorderly conduct and harassment.

On March 13, he was arrested again after he was accused of blocking another woman on Fifth Avenue and rubbing her buttocks. He was charged again with indecent assault.

On March 28, Johnson was accused of reentering a Downtown Rite Aid that he'd previously been banned from for smoking marijuana in the store. This time he was charged with defiant trespass.

The following day, on March 29, he was accused of aggressive panhandling and publicly urinating in front of a crowd of people on Liberty Avenue. He was charged with indecent exposure and disorderly conduct.

Two days later, on March 31, he was accused of stealing from the tip jar at The Corner Mercantile restaurant. In this instance, he was issued a summons.

And the next day, on April 1, he was charged with defiant trespass and theft after police say he went back to the Rite Aid and stole a bottle of Tylenol cough and cold medicine.

"Arresting people on a daily basis is not the answer," says Ragland.

During the pandemic, Downtown office towers emptied out and today the workers are still trickling back in. But while they were gone, a population of homeless and otherwise unemployed people moved in. And while most abide by the law, Commander Ragland says offenders fall into three categories: the homeless, the addicted and the mentally ill.

Ragland adds, "Some of those overlap. They're not just one of three, and some are all three. And so we have a difficult mission."

According to police reports, Johnson is all three. He's homeless, he's identified in police reports as a known drug user who has overdosed on the streets several times and, recently, he underwent a court-ordered mental health examination.

To try to combat the problems Downtown, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police has doubled the number of officers in the Golden Triangle. But Ragland says instead of simply taking people like Johnson to jail, the system needs to connect them with mental health services and/or drug treatment.

And in taking over patrols Downtown, he says he'll try to coordinate with the district attorney and county human services to do just that.

"We have to try something because what we're trying now doesn't seem to be working," says Ragland.

As for Arnez Johnson, he's now in the Allegheny County Jail. He's being held on $50,000 bail for his most recent indecent assault charge.

But what to do about him and offenders like him is still a work in progress.

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