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DA lauds proactive McKeesport police

| Friday, March 30, 2012

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. wants crime suppression details in McKeesport to serve as a catalyst for proactive regional police work.

During a Thursday press conference at McKee's Cafe, Zappala described the impact of seven months of crime suppression details intended to curb criminal activity in McKeesport.

"I want to publicly thank the McKeesport Police Department, which has always had a reputation for being an excellent agency, for leading this initiative," Zappala said. "It was a no-brainer to team up with them."

With support from officers and agents from the District Attorney Narcotics Enforcement Team, state Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement, county probation and state parole agencies, the effort has netted 138 arrests in 12 details since Sept. 30.

"That's extraordinary," Zappala said. "We have decided to stay out here for a while and get some other things done."

The district attorney said much of the effort focused on nuisance bars and drug traffickers, but kept a close watch on suggestions coming from the community.

Charges stemming from these details include parole violations, public intoxication, drug use, drug possession with intent to deliver, and firearms-related offenses.

Zappala said the collaboration is similar to a past initiative to deter crime in areas of downtown Pittsburgh such as Market Square.

"These types of criminals were making the good people stay away from these areas. They were driving the value of real estate down," Zappala said. "We told them, (tilde)You're out of here. You're not a friend of this city, and we're not going to permit this to take place.'"

Zappala said success in that effort sparked the value in real estate to triple and the city to invest heavily in its downtown.

"Now, it's one of the most vibrant areas in the western part of the state," he said.

Mayor Michael Cherepko, who observed McKeesport's crime suppression details alongside Chief Bryan J. Washowich, said he is hoping for a similar result in his city.

"The foundation of my campaign was to clean this city up," Cherepko said. "We need a safe city. It will be much easier (to achieve) economic development when people feel safe."

Zappala said law enforcement will complement the community development efforts of Cherepko and state Sen. James R. Brewster, the city's former mayor.

"We're going to set the table, so to speak, so that those things can happen," Zappala said. "You can't do anything as an elected official if (your community) is not safe. You can't bring business down here. You can't get people to invest."

While the mayor said patrols have netted arrests in nearly every city neighborhood, he said a majority have happened in public housing developments and the city's Seventh Ward.

"We have many issues that our city faces along with other communities. That includes violence and drugs," Cherepko said. "This fight against crime and curbing the violence starts with our youth."

Cherepko, a former educator in McKeesport Area School District, said he is surprised to recognize suspects as former students. Washowich said groups of juveniles moving through the city have become a major complaint among residents.

"Some of this is to clarify for the public, too, that not everybody they see on the corner is bad," Brewster said. "There's another side to this. There is speculation by people, and this type of program clarifies it. Our common goal is to make people feel safe."

Washowich said that goal is being achieved.

"The initiative is in its early stages, and we don't have factual information regarding the reduction of crime," Washowich said. "However, we do have community leaders reporting to us that they have noticed a reduction in the fear of crime in some of the neighborhoods we have targeted."

When preparing to send a large group of officers out on a crime suppression detail, McKeesport's narcotics unit is focused on areas where complaints are generated.

Detective Sgt. Mark Steele explained that McKeesport Police Department has been working with DANET since its inception in 2000.

"We were one of the first departments to participate," Steele said. "And we've been very active since then."

The crime suppression details Zappala described Thursday were developed by McKeesport's narcotics unit and carried out with county support, including DANET funding with no overtime pay required from the city budget.

The narcotics unit works with the chief's office, general investigation detectives and patrol officers to carry out detailed investigations.

"When we start an impact detail, we send out surveillance teams," Washowich said. "They canvas the city for areas that they feel we need to respond to. The majority of our target areas are places where we receive complaints from residents."

Through being mindful of resident concerns, Sgt. Connor Craig said McKeesport police are taking a proactive approach to narcotics enforcement and municipal police work.

"So often police departments are looked upon as being reactive, because we show up after an incident occurs," Craig said. "With these details, we are out being proactive. We are deterring crime."

During a crime suppression detail, officers look for suspicious activity as they approach people during traffic stops, on the street or inside local bars.

"We know areas in the city where there are open air drug sales. We know faces and names," Craig said. "There are ways people carry themselves when they're armed. There are things people do by nature that, as a seasoned law enforcement officer, you pick up on as deceptive behaviors."

Washowich said the goal is to give an air of "omnipresence" as law enforcement remains visible in city neighborhoods, and his officers agreed.

"The biggest part of McKeesport's impact squad is the shock value that comes with a large group of officers taking over a block and letting criminals know we're there," Craig said.

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