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A Model for Community-Based Policing in Pittsburgh

Residents seated in the community room engaging in dialogue.
Police officers on horses interact with children.
Room full of coats stacked on tables.
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Home > Case Studies > A Model for Community-Based Policing in Pittsburgh


A Model for Community-Based Policing in Pittsburgh


Pittsburgh’s Northside, a collection of 18 neighborhoods located across the Allegheny River from downtown, was once a hub of manufacturing and innovation. However, the construction of freeways in the 1960s and the collapse of the region’s manufacturing base in the 1980s sent the area into decline. Residents and businesses in this diverse community are driving efforts to bring about long-term change, most notably through One Northside, a resident-driven initiative supported by the Buhl Foundation. As part of the community’s effort to address residents’ public safety concerns, the foundation partnered with the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh (HACP) and the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police to launch the Northview Heights Public Safety Partnership in the HACP-owned Northview Heights public housing development. The hallmark of this effort was a public safety center, which opened in 2018 in the heart of Northview Heights. In addition to housing a police substation, the center serves as a community gathering space where residents and police can build relationships. Most Northside residents have reported feeling safer and more comfortable since the initiative launched. In 2021, the Buhl Foundation and its partners won a HUD Secretary’s Award for Public-Philanthropic Partnerships for a successful collaboration that led to measurable benefits in housing and community development.

Developing the Partnership

The Buhl Foundation was established in 1927 as a community service organization dedicated to promoting the overall well-being of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County residents. Local businessman Henry Buhl, Jr. founded the organization as a gift to his wife upon his death. After noticing that many parts of the area were being excluded from city improvements, the organization shifted to a place-based strategy in the Northside, where Mr. Buhl lived, worked, and is buried. The foundation worked with residents to create One Northside in 2014, an organization dedicated to supporting long-term and sustainable growth in the community. A 2-year community engagement effort revealed that the residents’ primary concern was safety. According to Diana Bucco, president of the Buhl Foundation, “[W]hen residents talked about safety, they talked about it at three levels. One was just to be safe walking down the street and not be fearful. Two was wanting a different relationship with officers and a focus on proactive public safety rather than reactive law enforcement. Three was that basic needs, or today’s social determinants, are being met.” Bucco said that not having enough food or sending kids to a low-performing school can make residents feel “unsafe.”

The foundation started to strategize with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police on community safety strategies. The Bureau of Police emphasized the importance of building relationships with residents and returning to a time when “the community are the police, and the police are the community,” since residents who have a strong relationship with the police are more likely to quickly inform them of problems. The police, in turn, can become more proactive and try to address small matters before they become complex. In some cases, this proactivity might involve providing basic support to people in need, even if no sign of criminal behavior exists. According to acting assistant chief Christopher Ragland, who was then the police commander for Northside, many service calls in the city can be attributed to residents whose support system is fragile. “Individuals and families without that support system often call 911 to assist them,” Ragland explained. “For example, we often get calls for a 10- to 13-year-old refusing to get up and go to school or refusing to listen. This shouldn’t be a call where police are the only entity dispatched.” Although officers might not be best suited to act as social workers, a strong partnership with social service providers allows early intervention following a team-based approach, which often can reduce service calls and, ultimately, criminal activity.

The foundation decided to make Northview Heights, a 455-unit public housing community that had been the site of multiple violent crimes, the focus of a pilot program in relationship-based policing. After conducting extensive research on community policing efforts nationwide, the Buhl Foundation, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, and HACP agreed to adopt a proactive policing model that involved building a public safety center in the community where residents and police officers could build relationships and collaborate on public safety strategies.

The partnership officially launched in 2018, when HACP signed a 3-year agreement with the Bureau of Police to manage security at Northview Heights. Under this unusual contract, the HACP agreed to pay the bureau $4.5 million to station six officers and one sergeant onsite full-time, displacing the need for private armed security guards who had less authority — and often less training — than city police. The mayor’s office was very supportive of this initiative and wanted to ensure that HACP funds would be separate from the regular police operating budget and solely used to support this partnership. The officers and sergeant reported to the new safety center, a repurposed residence, in December, and the entire facility opened to the community in summer 2019. Although physically located in the middle of Northview Heights, the center also serves residents of Allegheny Dwellings, another HACP-owned property in Northside.

Building Relationships

The relationships between residents and the police took some time to develop. According to Ragland, several residents initially were apprehensive about having police onsite full time. Eventually, however, many residents and officers built relationships and developed mutual trust. The Buhl Foundation assisted with this effort by funding a full-time community liaison to facilitate dialogue between police and the residents. The liaison also works to make residents comfortable spending time in the center.

The first floor of the public safety center is designed as a “problem solving space” where residents can address issues that are important to them. The liaison works with the tenant council and other residents to decide on the programming residents want in this space. Residents could ask the police to provide readiness courses for various emergencies such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation training. Residents can also use the space to engage in formal dialogue with police. Shortly after the partnership started, the liaison helped facilitate a discussion between officers and the tenant council during which both sides related their concerns. The council told the police how their actions made them uncomfortable, and the police explained to residents that they should tell the police about potential problems immediately to make the proactive policing strategy more effective.

Beyond Policing

The officers have helped organize other activities, such as a children’s soccer club, as well as coat and food drives, even during the COVID-19 pandemic when the center was closed to residents. The multipurpose center is often used for traditional community activities. For example, in fall 2022, residents and officers collaboratively held a family event for the community featuring games and trick-or-treating. These programs and activities are particularly beneficial for the children of Northview Heights, who do not have access to many organized activities. The space is also used for basic skills training such as sewing classes. Providing space for activities that do not involve officers helps reaffirm the center’s status as a truly resident-centered community space.

Early Outcomes

Sharing a space and participating in joint activities has helped many residents and officers build trusting relationships with each other. Bucco noted that “when you get to know each other, are in the community together, and see each other as equals who really care for each other, you start to behave differently.” The officers also believe this proactive community policing strategy has helped reduce crime in the neighborhood. Between 2017, the year before the program started, and 2022, Northview Heights saw a 72 percent decrease in criminal activity, including a 64 percent decrease in arrests, an 88 percent decrease in felonious assaults, and a 100 percent decrease in robberies. Similar reductions in Allegheny Dwellings occurred during this time, with a 58 percent decrease in crime.

A Model for Community Policing

This partnership has noticeably reduced crime in the city while also helping residents feel safer. Although the partnership’s focus was public safety, the other activities and services have led to an overall improvement in residents’ quality of life. The model illustrates a unique partnership between the public and private sectors. “We knew the whole model was unprecedented,” Bucco said. “That’s what sort of made it special.” The Buhl Foundation hopes that the partnership will become a model for relationship-based policing in the region and beyond. In fall 2022, the foundation and Pittsburgh Bureau of Police announced that they would expand relationship-based policing efforts to all 18 Northside communities as part of the Zone 1 Cares initiative.



The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.