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Homewood residents get lowdown on SWAT team

The city’s SWAT team was in Homewood June 26, only this time the neighbors were glad to see them.

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After planned saturation patrols of high-crime city neighborhoods made headlines and ruffled feathers (see CP’s “Military Police,” March 22, 2007), the Citizen Police Review Board and the police SWAT unit did some outreach into Homewood last week. A SWAT officer took questions and detailed the history and tactics of the elite unit for residents.

While the main attraction — the armored, fortified police vehicle known as the BEAR that was a visible and polarizing face of the patrols — didn’t appear at the meeting because it was in for repairs, the outreach was appreciated.

About 20 people — a much larger crowd than for a typical CPRB meeting — sat fanning themselves in the muggy Homewood Library to see a presentation on the Pittsburgh police’s SWAT team presented by officer Steve Mescan, a SWAT team leader, 15-year police officer and four-year veteran of the unit.

CPRB meetings are most often held in city council chambers Downtown. The Homewood meeting and presentation was an attempt to reach out to communities where relationships between police and citizens are strained, and to make it easier for residents to attend. October’s monthly meeting is tentatively scheduled for the Kingsley Community Center in East Liberty.

“I feel this should be done at least twice a year,” said Sarah B. Campbell, a Homewood resident and chair of the neighborhood public-safety committee. “People are not going to get Downtown.” Frequently, the Downtown meetings are all but empty. She said the presentation showed a dedication and willingness on the part of the police to reach out to communities, which she found encouraging. She was hoping to get the BEAR to appear at a planned Aug. 25 Community Day in Homewood. Mescan said the vehicle was used far more often in a demonstration capacity that than dangerous ones.

“The only thing glamorous about SWAT is the name,” Mescan says. “We’re a team, just like the Steelers or any other team.” The team is part time with nine full-time positions and 42 operators. There are six African-American officers and no women, though Mescan says there have been four during his tenure.

SWAT is called to situations that require teamwork and are over and above what a typical beat officer can handle alone, such as hostage, sniper or barricade situations or serving warrants in high-risk situations, such as when houses may be fortified with booby traps or guard dogs. They also provide protection for visiting dignitaries.

Mescan said that 94 percent of the time SWAT shows up, a situation “goes neutral,” meaning there’s no violent confrontation. Ideally, he said, everyone, including “the bad guy,” comes out alive — the rescue priority starts with hostages, then innocent bystanders, the SWAT officers and finally hostage takers. “He’s the last on our priority list,” says Mescan, “but he makes the list.”

Community activist and Nation of Islam minister Jasiri X brought up the saturation patrols, asking where under the rubric of SWAT-worthy occurrences they occurred. Mescan said those patrols, financed by federal grants, occur in neighborhoods with the highest crime rates.
“Isn’t a general round-up designed as a fear-type thing?” X asked.
“It is designed to dry up or quell activity,” says Mescan. “It’s to put a lid on it for a little while.”

CPRB chairwoman Marsha Hinton thanked Mescan for the presentation. “You probably dispelled some myths,” she said.

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