After a bitter election-season feud, can Gainey and Zappala reconcile on public safety?

A bitter feud between Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. and Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey served as the backdrop of Zappala’s successful re-election campaign. Now that Zappala has won a seventh term in office, it seems unlikely that tensions between the two will ease.

Even as votes were being counted Tuesday night, Zappala said the results sent a clear message that voters want a tougher approach to drug offenses Downtown and other crimes in the city.

“I think the voters are telling us, ‘We understand what the issues are. Do something about them,’” he said. “People [are] aware of some of the problems we have.”

Zappala had faced former chief public defender Matt Dugan on the ballot, but some of the district attorney’s supporters said his re-election also served as a referendum on Gainey.

“There’s been discussions of the performance, or lack thereof, by the mayor, especially in Downtown,” said Tom Corbett, a Republican former governor and state attorney general who once worked in the Allegheny County DA’s office himself. “I walk Downtown almost every day, and it needs to be improved dramatically.”

But if Zappala’s re-election signals a mandate for overhauling city law enforcement, it’s unclear what he intends to do with it.

‘The county can have a say’

The tension between Zappala and Gainey came to a head late last month when Zappala suggested that he would pursue legal action in federal court to take control of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. He pointed to a landmark 1997 consent decree between the U.S. Department of Justice and Pittsburgh to address police misconduct as a precedent for his office to step in. The district attorney’s office was not a party to that federal action or involved in operating and managing the city police force under the decree.

Gainey’s administration brushed him back with a statement that accused Zappala of trying “to mislead and use fear to win an election,” scheduled just days away.

“If Mr. Zappala has a case or a statute that he can cite to prove he has the authority to seize control of our Pittsburgh Bureau of Police: I’d love to see it,” the statement said.

Gainey’s supporters expressed outrage about Zappala’s threat, with a group of Black civic leaders holding a press conference last Saturday in which they accused Zappala of “racially motivated political maneuvering.”

Tim Stevens, founder of the Black Political Empowerment Project, said Zappala’s rhetoric was a “clear attempt to emasculate Pittsburgh’s first African American mayor.”

At the time, Zappala’s campaign responded with a statement saying that “innocent people and property owners of the City of Pittsburgh who are not being protected … are my chief concern.” He said he had “a number of extraordinary remedies at my disposal.”

But on election night three days later, Zappala seemed to walk back the idea of seizing control of city police.

“Rather than argue about undermanning the Pittsburgh police and not helping them do the job, we’re going to look at it a little bit differently and in a little bit more broader manner,” he said.

Instead, he discussed a plan to create a city-county municipal authority with jurisdiction over East Carson Street and the South Side Flats, where weekend shootings have stoked fears about public safety.

Violence in the neighborhood is “one of the issues we have to address right away,” Zappala said, adding that creating such an authority would ensure “everybody in the county can have a say in how the South Side is protected,” he said. The body might also be able to draw on the city and county alike for funding, he added.

Municipal authorities are units of government more commonly used to maintain and operate assets such as public water systems and sports facilities. State law does allow authorities to maintain police — Allegheny County’s transit authority does so — but Zappala did not offer an example of an authority with a primary purpose of policing a designated area.

Despite his concerns about public safety in the area, Zappala held his election night party for supporters on East Carson Street, at Cupka’s II.

When asked about the location, Zappala said the South Side is still “a great place to come,” and he noted that the bar was several blocks from the stretch of East Carson where recent violent incidents have taken place.

“We’re pretty good up here,” Zappala said in jest.

‘Whatever it is, it will come out’

Perceptions of crime can vary greatly depending on where you’re standing.

While much of the recent concern about public safety has focused on Downtown and the South Side, city data suggests that the two neighborhoods combined account for only about 5% of the 43 homicides and 156 non-fatal shootings reported in the city this year. And homicides citywide are down 20% from the previous year; non-fatal shootings have dropped by 14%.

Those numbers didn’t impress Zappala supporters Tuesday night.

“Crime [numbers] can be down when you don’t bother to arrest,” argued Corbett, the former governor. “It doesn’t mean crime is down.”

In any case, Zappala stressed that he wanted to do more than just arrest people: He said he wants to dedicate office resources to help the region’s growing homeless population. “It’s not a crime to be homeless. We can help,” Zappala said.

Zappala said he could reach out to human service agencies to “get people to the table” and deploy medical or behavioral care, rather than put people through the criminal justice system.

Such an approach would echo policies embraced by Dugan, Zappala’s election-year foe. And city and county officials are already collaborating on an effort to remove homeless encampments that pose a safety threat. County officials and the city’s Office of Community Health and Safety have established a committee to evaluate each homeless encampment before deciding whether to clear it. The first tents cleared under the policy were part of a Downtown site along First Avenue. Belongings were removed this week after the city claimed to have found other accommodations for people staying there.

Another feud between Zappala and Gainey has to do with how often Pittsburgh has issued contracts while bypassing the usual competitive bidding process. Zappala began looking into contracts in the summer after he said his office received complaints about the city’s dealings with a police staffing consultant.

That inquiry later expanded into a look at all no-bid contracts entered into by the city dating back to 2020, which would include contracts during the administration of former Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.

Zappala made use of the state’s Right to Know law to request documents related to those contracts. On Tuesday, he said his office received a response to the request but declined to elaborate: Until a review is completed, he said, “it would be unfair to characterize wherever we’re at right now.”

Amid Zappala’s inquiry, Pittsburgh City Council voted toenact an ordinance that changed exemption requirements for competitive bidding earlier this week. The new rules require the city’s law department to sign off on any future no-bid contract.

City Council President Theresa Kail Smith and Anthony Coghill were in attendance at Zappala’s victory party Tuesday.

Coghill led a council investigation into the city’s use of no-bid contracts and said his inquiry did not turn up any misconduct. He described the new rules, which also limit how often the city can draw upon a list of pre-approved vendors, as “safeguards” against any future transgressions.

But while Coghill found no sign of a problem, he said Zappala’s look at city contracts is a valid pursuit.

“I feel confident that he’s looking into it for a reason,” he said. “Whatever it is, it will come out.”

Gainey, meanwhile, professed to be willing to work with Zappala in his new term.

“If it’s about pointing fingers, it would always be difficult,” Gainey told reporters Tuesday night. “But if it’s about coming together to make this the safest city in America, then we can work with anybody.”

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