Safety — not police accountability — a focus in Allegheny County exec race

Democratic candidates for Allegheny County executive debate at a forum hosted by Democratic and grassroots groups on Wednesday night, Feb. 15, 2023, at the Hampton Community Center. Seated from left are Dave Fawcett, Erin McClelland, Liv Bennett, Sara Innamorato and Michael Lamb. John Weinstein did not join until later in the event. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Two years after a local election defined by calls for police accountability, candidates for county office are prioritizing other issues. But one frontrunner is talking tough on crime.

by Charlie Wolfson, PublicSource

Two years ago, Ed Gainey ran for Pittsburgh mayor, focusing his campaign in large part on making Pittsburgh’s police more accountable and less militarized. Gainey won the election.

Now, in a competitive and crowded race for Allegheny County executive, John Weinstein is betting a different public safety message will carry the day. Weinstein, the longtime county treasurer, launched his campaign with a speech describing crime in Pittsburgh’s Downtown as a serious threat to the region’s prosperity and implicated current city and county leaders (Gainey included) for not doing enough about it.

“You have no plan to clean up Pittsburgh, this is the result,” Weinstein said in a recent interview, citing youth crime and rising rates of homicide, what he termed “aggressive panhandling” and a sluggish return to pre-pandemic capacity at Downtown offices. A television ad paid for by Weinstein’s campaign opens with clips of newscasts describing “disturbing” homicide statistics, followed by the candidate saying, “We need to take action right now. We need strong leadership.”

Weinstein’s emphasis on public safety and crime is the most pronounced of the seven-member Democratic field, but he’s not alone in shifting away from the police accountability push that overtook Democratic politics in 2020 and 2021. Even the most left-leaning candidates, like state Rep. Sara Innamorato and county Councilwoman Olivia Bennett, talk little of police accountability on their campaign websites and in public forums.

A diminished focus on policing this election cycle is partly due to the nature of the county executive’s duties. Managing police is at the very core of a mayor’s job, while the county executive oversees a smaller department but is more focused on regional economic growth, public health and human services.

Port Authority and Pittsburgh police respond to a stabbing along Smithfield Street on Thursday, March 2, 2023, in Downtown. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
Port Authority and Pittsburgh police respond to a stabbing along Smithfield Street on Thursday, March 2, 2023, in Downtown. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

But the shift is also in line with a change in Democratic politics nationwide; many candidates have moved toward the center on policing issues, some urging funding increases for police, after liberals suffered brutal results in 2021 elections in some places. (Notably, Allegheny County was not one of those places.) The trend continued even last week, with the defeat of an incumbent Chicago mayor blamed by rivals for rising crime.

Candidates pitch collaborative role on safety

While the Bureau of Police makes up almost a fifth of the city’s budget and comprises more than a quarter of its employees, the county’s police department makes up about 4% of its operating budget and workforce. 

The county’s police force employs around 280 people, including some administrative staff, and traditionally has been tasked with patrolling county parks and airports and assisting municipal police with investigations on occasion. The department pales in comparison to the county’s Department of Human Services, which goes through more than $1 billion annually and employs more than 1,000 people, including contracted workers. In a reflection of that, most executive candidates are approaching safety from a holistic perspective, advocating for incorporating human services into existing police response.

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