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DATELINE: PITTSBURGH, PA. : Where a Rising Murder Rate Is No Big Thing : In a city little changed in generations, strangers are easily noticed. Police have time to solve crimes.

January 14, 1992|BILL STEIGERWALD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the city the "Places Rated Almanac" calls the third most livable in the land, the murder rate has jumped nearly 50% since 1988.

If the same statistical trend were occurring in Oakland or Atlanta (cities of comparable size), the outraged citizenry would be howling for action and "60 Minutes" crews would be crawling all over town.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 15, 1992 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 4 Metro Desk 2 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Pittsburgh crime--Because of an editing error, The Times incorrectly reported in Tuesday's editions that Pittsburgh's murder rate had increased less than 50% since 1988. In fact, the increase is 62.5%. In 1988, 24 people were murdered; in 1991, 39 were. Also, the percentage of murder cases that were solved in 1990 was 94.3%.

But this is Pittsburgh, where the quality of life is high and the crime rate is so low that it's the safest big city in America, according to FBI crime statistics. No one here is concerned because, even with the recent trend, the murder toll remains remarkably low.

Last year, 23,438 Americans were shot, stabbed, strangled or otherwise murdered (including 1,768 in metropolitan Los Angeles), but in this city of 369,000 people, just 39 homicides occurred in 1991, or 24 more than in 1988.

The homicide rate here is almost 2 1/2 times lower than the average for cities of more than 250,000, says the FBI's 1990 Uniform Crime Reports.

For example, Oakland, population 372,200, had 146 murders in 1990. Atlanta, with about 400,000 people, counted 231 homicides. Washington, D.C., had 472 murders. In the 10 years from 1981 to 1990, Pittsburgh had 402.

The Pittsburgh metropolitan area's homicide rate looks equally minuscule next to other areas. In a population of 2.05 million in four suburban and rural southwestern Pennsylvania counties, 67 people were murdered last year.

That's a metro murder rate of 3.3 per 100,000 people, compared to the U.S. average of 11. Los Angeles' metro rate was 19.9 per 100,000 last year; New Orleans' was 31.2. Metropolitan Oakland had 258 murders, for a rate of 12.4, in 1990.

Why is Pittsburgh relatively murder free? Commander Ron Freeman, in charge of the city's homicide squad, can rattle off the answers.

Pittsburgh's population is getting older and older people commit fewer crimes, Freeman says. The city--which lost nearly half its population since 1950 but didn't see its large and vital middle-class population flee to the suburbs--also is very stable.

Pittsburgh is still a city of neighborhoods, he says, much of it hardly changed in generations. Many areas are filled with close families who continue to instill and uphold traditional values. There are few transients here, so strangers are conspicuous.

Another factor, Freeman says, is that youth gangs are virtually nonexistent, so there are no battles over drug turf. There is a drug problem, he says, but drugs are not as entrenched here as in some cities. Crack cocaine came late to Pittsburgh--about two years ago, he says, and police were ready for it. They acted before the addictions and violence associated with the drug escalated.

If someone does get shot or stabbed, the victim is much less likely to die than 15 years ago, Freeman says, thanks to the city's paramedic services and excellent trauma centers.

Along with the surprisingly low murder rate is the city's nearly perfect record for solving homicides. Of 35 murder cases last year, 33 were cleared with an arrest. That's a 94.3% rate, compared to the nationwide average of 62.5% among cities of more than 250,000 people.

Part of the super-success of Pittsburgh's 11-man homicide squad can be attributed to the low number of cases it handles, Freeman explains. The squad is able to use an intensive, team approach.

Everyone available is called in, and officers descend on a slaying scene en masse. They work around the clock while the murderer's trail and witnesses' memories are still fresh.

Detective Bill Mullen described how one murder was solved in October.

Eight detectives arrived at the scene at 3 a.m. Starting with only a description of a man seen with the stabbing victim before she died, he said, they fanned out in the neighborhood, interviewing people, going house to house and into bars, looked into dumpsters and down sewers.

Following little leads--a nickname, a bar where the suspect used to drink--they found a man who admitted being with the woman but denied killing her. While two detectives questioned him, others worked the street.

Soon they found a bag of bloody clothes in a dumpster, with other evidence that strongly linked their suspect to the murder. Confronted with all the evidence, the man confessed 10 hours after the crime, Mullen said.

In contrast, Mullen said, a homicide detective in Washington, D.C., facing an overwhelming caseload, might spend as little as 10 minutes at a murder scene.

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