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Pittsburgh homicides plunged nearly 27% in 2023

“Agencies putting more efforts into relationships with the community are going to see positive things, like improvements in the clearance rates,” a criminal justice expert said

Pittsburgh Bureau of Police

Pittsburgh police investigated 52 homicides in 2023, a nearly 27% drop from last year’s total of 71 cases, year-end data shows.

Pittsburgh Bureau of Police

By Justin Vellucci
The Tribune-Review, Greensburg

PITTSBURGH — It was an ominous start to 2023: Gunmen murdered police officers in Brackenridge and McKeesport during the first six weeks.

While the two high-profile shootings heralded a lawless and violent year ahead, Allegheny County and Pittsburgh actually saw a drop in homicides, reflecting similar decreases across the country.

And as the number of killings fell, the rate at which local police solved cases rose, beating the national average.

Pittsburgh police investigated 52 homicides in 2023, a nearly 27% drop from last year’s total of 71 cases, year-end data shows.

In Allegheny County, not including Pittsburgh, Allegheny County Police reported 49 homicides in 2023. That’s the lowest number countywide since at least 2018, and it’s down from 52 homicides in 2022.

Westmoreland County had one confirmed homicide in 2023 and three pending. That didn’t include cases where residents died outside of the county. Westmoreland County reported five homicides in 2022, according to the coroner’s office.

As the year began, the Alle-Kiski and Mon valley communities reeled with shock.

On Jan. 2, Brackenridge police Chief Justin McIntire was gunned down by Aaron Swan Jr. Hours later, Pittsburgh police killed Swan during a gunfight.

McKeesport police officer Sean Sluganski was killed Feb. 6 while responding to a domestic dispute. Police arrested his accused killer, Johnathan Morris, at the scene; prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

But it wasn’t just the deaths of police officers that devastated area residents. Families grieved over three murder-suicides — in Wilkins, Monroeville and Penn Hills — and the slayings of six teenagers, including in Braddock, Clairton, Pittsburgh’s Homewood and Wilmerding. Motives for the killings ranged from neighbor disputes to domestic violence to a fight in a bar.

Since COVID-19 hit Southwestern Pennsylvania in spring 2020, homicide rates had climbed steadily. Homicides in Pittsburgh nearly doubled from 2019 to 2022, jumping to 71 slayings from 37. There were 50 homicides in 2020 and 56 in 2021.

In Allegheny County, homicides crested during the pandemic era in 2021, when there were 64 killings, up from 53 in 2018.

National trend

The decrease in homicides mirrors what police departments nationwide are reporting, experts said.

Homicide rates in 30 U.S. cities providing homicide data were 9.4% lower — 202 fewer killings — during the first half of 2023 than in the first half of 2022, according to a Council on Criminal Justice study, which included Pittsburgh.

The homicide rate began trending upward in the U.S. in 2015 after a long-running decline, the council study said. After peaking in 2021, the rate has dropped, but it remains higher in the first half of this year than it was before the pandemic in those 30 sample cities.

The group expects to release findings about year-end data in January.

“Big areas that last year got mainstream media coverage, New York City , Los Angeles, Philadelphia ... those areas did see dwindling (homicide) numbers,” said Jillian E. Snider, a retired New York City police officer who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “We’re still higher than we were pre-pandemic, but we’re going down.”

Relationships matter

Some of the drop in homicides can be attributed to officers focusing on community outreach and building better relationships with residents, Pittsburgh police Assistant Chief Richard Ford told TribLive. That, combined with collecting intelligence before and after an arrest, allows police to be more proactive in tackling violent crime.

“There’s a lot more work that goes on after an arrest. Our department does it as well as anybody’s,” Ford said. “And we constantly try to get better at that.”

“Our officers work a case till it can’t be worked anymore,” Major Crimes Cmdr. Lori McCartney added.

In the meantime, Pittsburgh police’s clearance rate — the percent of homicide cases that end in an arrest or are “cleared” because of factors such as self-defense — is the best it’s been in at least five years.

The police force’s Violent Crime Unit cleared 65% of homicide cases this year, up from 62% last year and 56% in 2021, spokeswoman Cara Cruz said.

Detectives cleared 34 of the 52 homicide cases reported in 2023, Cruz said. In addition, Pittsburgh police cleared 12 homicides that were reported in previous years.

The homicide clearance rate nationwide in 2022 was about 50%, according to the FBI.

The clearance rate makes more sense when considering Pittsburgh police’s increased focus on community partnerships, Snyder said. She visited Allegheny County in July 2022 with a Washington, D.C., think tank where she works and met with local police, prosecutors and corrections officers.

“Agencies putting more efforts into relationships with the community are going to see positive things, like improvements in the clearance rates,” Snider said.

Pittsburgh-area law enforcement “had a more optimistic attitude — ‘We are working in partnership with our community,’” she said. “It makes (residents) feel like they’re playing a role in this whole thing. People are more likely to cooperate when they feel they’re contributing to something.”

It’s about more than building relationships, Ford said. Community outreach helped prevent potential homicides in 2023, in part due to stronger intelligence-gathering efforts and better monitoring of social media.

About 5 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 20, two Pittsburgh police officers thwarted a nightclub shooting at a Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar intersection notorious for gun violence. The pair had been on surveillance as part of a proactive patrol by eight officers.

“That’s a prime example. That’s one that gets attention,” Ford said.

In September, Pittsburgh police officers worked their community contacts to help stop a potential shooting at a Homewood school — a move Pittsburgh police Chief Larry Scirotto and Mayor Ed Gainey praised.

“Sometimes it doesn’t get broadcast, but there’s constant work going on behind the scenes. Communication is the biggest thing,” Ford said. “We try to put those pieces together. Sometimes it’s obvious. Sometimes it’s not. ... That goes hand-in-hand with prevention.”

County clearance rates

Clearance-rate success is not limited to Pittsburgh.

In 2023, the Allegheny County Police Department solved 35 of 49 homicides, or 71%, Assistant Superintendent Vic Joseph said.

That matched its successes in 2019 and 2021.

While the department’s clearance rates for 2018, 2020 and 2022 were lower, they still beat the national average.

Working with community members helps county police arrest suspects in violent crimes such as homicides, said Joseph, who joined the county force after retiring in 2021 as the Pittsburgh police commander overseeing major crimes investigations.

“We can’t do this alone,” he said.

Using technology

Allegheny County Police Lt. Venerando Costa, a 26-year department veteran, joined the force’s homicide unit in 2009. Since then, he said county police detectives have gotten more sophisticated with how they investigate crime.

He cited the arrest last month of an Irwin man in the death of Serra Catholic High School student Samantha Lee Kalkbrenner, 15. That man — William R. Soliday, 43 — is accused of racing another driver and speeding up to 107 mph seconds before he crashed into a school van, killing Kalkbrenner and hospitalizing four others.

The second driver — Andrew Voigt, 37, of Penn Hills — also was arrested.

Part of Soliday’s homicide charge stemmed from dashboard camera footage from the school van and a Tesla nearby, Costa said.

During the past decade, developments with DNA, cellphone technology, doorbell and surveillance cameras and cars’ “infotainment” systems have changed the game, police said.

“Technology has changed everything,” Joseph said.


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