Q&A: Community policing strategies from a chief who is literally 'walking the walk'
Pittsburgh Chief Scott Schubert is walking the beat through each of the 90 communities that make up his city
Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert has spent the past several months walking each of the 90 neighborhoods that make up the diverse city he calls home. Despite growing up in Pittsburgh, serving as a Pittsburgh police officer for 29 years, and having a father who also wore the Pittsburgh PD badge, Schubert continues to learn about and discover new parts of the city he loves through his walks, which he documents on Instagram.
Far from a “one and done” community policing initiative, Schubert plans to continue his walks after he hits all 90 neighborhoods and hopes to expand the foot beat to the rank-and-file. In this Q&A, Schubert talks about his approach to community policing, why it’s important for police leaders to “walk the walk,” his love of Pittsburgh, and more.
Police1: Why did you want to become a cop?
Chief Scott Schubert: I grew up around it, and I have so much respect for my dad; I loved seeing him in uniform. To see the level of respect he gave to people, the respect those people gave back to him, and how he talked to people and treated people was very inspiring.
P1: You’ve spent your career in Pittsburgh and grew up there. Has the relationship between police and the public in the city changed over the years?
Schubert: We've always had a pretty good relationship with the community, but we weren't focused enough as I think we should have been on community policing. When I say that, I mean not just interacting with the public when they're calling for help, but really being out in the community. And it’s more than just working with community groups. Those groups are great. I've dealt with them for a long time – it's people who are highly committed to improving their community and working with us. But there are also a whole lot of other people who live in a community who aren't in those groups.
It's tremendously important that we don’t look at [community policing] as a program, but as who we are as police officers. We all get into this because we want to help people and make a difference in their lives. So, when you're out and about, beep your horn, or wave, or stop and say hi. Engage people, and don't wait for them to do it first. It makes a huge difference out there, because it makes people feel valued.
P1: What does successful community policing look like to you?
Schubert: I've lived in Pittsburgh my whole life. We have 90 different communities here and one thing I really love is, no matter what happens – good or bad – we all come together, even with all of our differences. So as a police officer and a resident in Pittsburgh, I think of ‘community’ as working together. We can't go into a community and say, ‘This is how we're going to fix things.’ In law enforcement, we're very data-driven, but when we go in to try to help a community and we don't engage them, we're only going to get our perspective of what we think the problems are and what the solutions are. You really need to work with members of the community to find out their perception – that’s huge. Perception is reality, and if you discount that, you're already setting yourself up for failure.
P1: How did you come up with the idea to walk the beat in all 90 of your city's neighborhoods?
Schubert: With the protests throughout the summer, the country just seemed so divided. I felt I needed to get out and talk to people. Not just at community meetings, but out in the streets, and really get a feeling on where we're at, how we're doing and what we can do better.
Obviously being a chief, it's a little difficult timewise, but I started walking a couple of different areas when I had a break, or after work. We had one community in the North Side where we had some issues – a number of ‘shots fired’ calls and things like that. I went there and ended up spending four hours on my day off walking around, and the engagement I had with people really resonated with me, and it grew from there.
When you’re just driving, you miss so much. You can say that you’ve been in that community, but you really don't know that community until you get out of the car. It's about three hours every time I do it, and it's roughly about six miles that I walk. It's been so insightful for me.
P1: How so?
Schubert: Initially, people are usually shocked as they don't usually see a police officer walking a beat. So, the first question I get tends to be, ‘Is everything all right?’ That leads into talking, and you find out some things that are going on. Maybe there’s some drug dealing. Maybe there's speeding complaints, parking complaints. Things like that that you may not otherwise get to hear, and you start to build a relationship with that person you are talking to.
I get a lot of ‘thank yous,’ and people saying, ‘We need you, and we appreciate what you're doing, and we need more people doing what you're doing.’ It’s also nice to learn the history of these communities, because some of them have changed dramatically over the years, and people like to share stories about how it was. Because I love this city, learning about that stuff helps me as both a Pittsburgher and a police officer.
I'm trying to to show people, ‘Look. I'm here. I want to be available, and I want to hear from you.’ Because that's what we've learned through all the protests, is a lot of people just want to be heard, and they want engagement. That engagement actually energizes me to want to do more.
And the benefit isn’t just for that one person you engage with. That one person will tell other people about your positive interaction, and those people are going to tell other people about it. One positive engagement spreads to other people.
P1: Why is it important for cops in leadership positions to get out there?
Schubert: If you want to talk the talk, you better be able to walk the walk. I think it's got to trickle down from there, and that's what my focus is going to be now. How do we implement it so others [in the department] can see the value that I get from it?
We have to have that appreciation for knowing the community on another level, knowing a neighborhood, the residents who live there and the business owners. My goal is to have everybody do it. Even if you got out of your car for 30 minutes in an area where you could have a high impact on community engagement, it would do wonders for the community and for our officers. I think it will validate to officers why they became police in the first place.
P1: You are documenting your walks on Instagram. How did you get into photography?
Schubert: I was in our crime scene unit as a detective and a sergeant, so obviously had to do photography with the old Pentax K1000, using film and printing everything out in black and white. I always loved photography, but I stopped doing it probably in the mid-2000s. Then as we started using smartphones, with these nice cameras, I picked it back up as a hobby. Photography is my stress relief.
I love Pittsburgh, so I take a lot of pictures of our city. Especially during COVID, where maybe people can't get out like they want to get out, I take pictures to show the beauty in all of our communities, and share them on Instagram, so others can see what I'm seeing while I'm out on my walks.
Hopefully someday, they'll want to go out to these different neighborhoods. I've had people message me saying, ‘Thank you. I didn't even know that that was in the city. I'm going to go check it out.’ That, to me, that's relational policing, when you have that type of engagement and you’re connecting people. That's kind of what it's all about, trying to share my experiences and trying to show the human side of policing.