Sitting Down with Mayor Sinnott
Erie's Mayor speaks on the rise in crime and violence in the city.
Erie's 47th Mayor took office amidst choppy waters. In 2005, the City found itself adrift politically, unsure how to cope with the then subsiding tide of the real estate scandal that severely weakened at best and wrecked at worst Incumbent Mayor Rick Filippi's run at a second term. Although Filippi was acquitted on all charges – from criminal conspiracy, to conflict of interest, to accepting improper influence, which resulted from his involvement in a company interested in purchasing land for an $80 million gambling complex – he lost the election to then-City Councilman Joseph Sinnott.
Like his predecessor, Sinnott was a Gannon University graduate, a practicing lawyer, and a one-term member of City Council who opted to swing from the legislative branch to the executive. But unlike his predecessor, Sinnott – when all's said and done – will have held the Mayor's office three times, reaching the maximum term limit. Moreover, he didn't face a single challenger on the ballot in either bid for re-election, suggesting we'd reached calm waters and a cool breeze.
Read recent headlines or watch the top-of-the-hour reports and it's impossible to ignore the rash of crime and violence across the City.
Yet since he took office in 2006, Sinnott says that addressing crime and violence has been at the forefront of his administration's concerns. He says he campaigned on the core competencies of the City being that of law enforcement and public services. Jobs programs were secondary and social services, the Mayor has echoed throughout the years, are not a concern of the City. Despite the recent rise in crime, comparatively, Erie is still a relatively safe city when stacked against the national average, as examined in the inaugural Jefferson Essay, published by the City's think tank, The Jefferson Educational Society.
But times change, crime evolves, and solutions remain elusive.
Again, we find ourselves in choppy waters and looking to the helmsman to steer us through to the brighter, safer potential on the horizon.
From City Council candidates to local reporters to concerned citizens, many hold the perception that the Mayor's preferred role out of the spotlight means he "doesn't care, is aloof, and is disconnected," as one City Councilman remarked. His resignation has been called for in the pages of the Erie Times-News, after he responded to Pat Howard's column "Erie needs Mayor Sinnott to raise his expectations."
Admittedly – even opening with it in his response to Howard – Sinnott hasn't been one to respond publically to editorial commentary. But he did. And he's defended his view that he's seeking substantive results – something not obtained by public marches and demonstrations.
Mayor Joe Sinnott says he has solutions to the current crime plaguing our City. He recently sat down with Contributing Editor Jim Wertz and Managing Editor Ben Speggen to answer their questions about his plans, his philosophy on City government, and his decision to publicly defend his image and his actions against violence as our Mayor.
Ben Speggen: You said in the Lisa Adams' [of WICU] interview that at the forefront of your administration has been targeting crime and violence. You've been re-elected twice, which is clearly an affirmation that what you've been doing is working. I'm curious what you see as your three or four key successes in addressing crime and violence during your time in office.
Joe Sinnott: Well, the way crime has been…I think what has been most successful for us over that time is our ability to transform, for lack of a better word, our operations and our deployment to address the way that crime has changed. Crime tends to morph. As different things happen, different circumstances arise, you have crime changing, and I'll give you an example: The first couple of years – and it's not responsive to your question, but it's an example of how thing tend to change – one of the troubles we used to have in the summertime was that we'd have these large groups of kids fighting in the streets over in the 24th and Ash area. There'd be 50 kids – not kids, but young adults, actually – and today, we see none of that. None of it.
In a couple of years, the way disputes are handled, the things that are giving rise to that type of thing is that you're seeing more gun violence than you are seeing kids in the streets fighting. That's a rudimentary example of what I'm talking about, but even on the larger scale, if you look at drugs, we have a much greater heroin issue now than we ever had because that has changed, the model has changed, the culture has changed, so to speak.
What I think we've been successful doing when looking at crime overall is changing our deployment, changing our special operations – things like that – to try and address the changes that are giving rise to some of these things and really attack the root causes. Right now what we're looking at doing as we're seeing more gun violence, we're seeing more guns on the street, we want to look at what is putting them there. Is it part of the way the drug trade has changed? Is it part of the way that the illegal gun market has changed? If that is in fact the case, then maybe our focus has to be a little different as to how to get to that supply line.
In other words, if we're seeing drug dealers putting guns in the hands of younger people because they're co-opting them into the drug trade at a younger age, then we get after that – to stop it before it gets there. What puts a gun in a 14-year old's hands? That could be a multitude of different answers, but we have to really start getting to some of the root crimes. We've taken a lot of guns off the street, we really have, but are we getting there when it's too late? Should we be getting to it sooner? Is there a way to get to it sooner? So that's what we're working on. We've been successful over the years.
[Former Police] Chief [Steve] Franklin had a number of special operations in the course of his tenure here designed specifically to deal with certain issues and they worked. So I think our success overall isn't one specific thing. Yes, we've got a lot of guns off the street; we continue to do very well with chronic violent offenders, targeting what we believe to be the most violent people in the community. Those have been very successful, but still we're seeing this. I think probably our greatest success has been our ability to change as we've needed to.
Jim Wertz: What's changed in this community? What factors have changed over time that have led to some of the changes in violent behavior and criminal behavior? We've seen an increase in crime over the past ten years. Where's that coming from?
JS: That's a difficult question, because it's something that you've seen across the country. Gun violence is on the rise everywhere, so what has caused that? We haven't seen a large uptick in the drug trade here. We have seen it change in profile, somewhat. Poverty is an issue. There's a plethora of things that lead to it, which is why it's not a singular answer. It's law enforcement, there has to be the social service, and the community has to be involved as well to stop it. You can't put your finger on one thing and say, "Okay, this changed, and this is why," because otherwise the solution would be much more prevalent.
JW: You talk a lot about root causes, and you've been talking more about root causes. Last year when you and I spoke about the City's decision not to participate in the funding of the Summer Jobs And More program you said, "Our core competencies are public safety and public services. Job training is not one of our core competencies that we would normally fund." Then in your response to Pat Howard in the Erie Times-News you said, "I view this city's primary responsibility as law enforcement, jobs programs are secondary and social services are not our responsibility." Where do the City and social services blend? What's the role of social services and what's the role of the city in aiding them?
JS: The City's role is primarily law enforcement. It's the way we're structured; it's the way we're funded. County government deals with social services. That's the way they're funded. That's what they do. We have our summer recreation program, which bleeds into that a little bit with giving young people alternatives, and we've been very successful with that. We serve 5,000 kids a summer doing that. And we do employ 140 people over the summer months, but it's not really what I call social service in the things that are out there to help families and to help structure solutions.
JW: Let's talk about the non-governmental services, because those seem to be an area of contention because they're not contributing to the tax base, but they play a really important role in this community. So what's that bridge? What's that mean in addressing root causes? Doesn't the city play a role in allowing these non-governmental service agencies to persist?
JS: Sure, and when I talk about playing a role, I'm talking more along the lines of what we're able to fund, what we're able to support, and we don't really fund and support those things – granted they are nonprofits within the city so the community overall helps to support them. But they play an invaluable role.
I think part of the issue, one of the facets in the overall picture, is the way that social services have been systematically funded over the years. There aren't as many resources as there used to be. We're fortunate here. We have a lot of very good ones, so they still make a really good impact, I believe, so we're fortunate here in Erie, but they struggle every day to be able to stay in operation. I've talked to the Senators – federal Senators and Congressmen – and the state officials about our need to continue to keep funds going to these social services because without them who knows what these cities would become. I'm not just talking about Erie, Pa., I'm talking about cities everywhere.
JW: So doesn't the city have a responsibility to intervene or fill in the gaps?
JS: We don't have the resources to fund that. It all comes down to funding. The tax base of the city cannot afford paying for everything. What do you want your taxes to be? As it is you have people moving to the suburbs because of what it costs tax-wise to live in the city. So part of keeping the tax base under control and keeping it affordable for people to live in the city is to stay with your core competencies, to fund the things that we have to fund. The funding for those other things is designed to be different. The city taxpayers can't afford to pick up the bill for everything.
BS: Funding is the bottom line for everything. We have limited resources and one of the things that you've been credited with doing is keeping the budget within means and fiscally managing the city well. So hypothetically, if money was not an object and we had all the resources necessary, how do we address crime and violence if we have all the resources we need?
JS: I think the funding would be best served being diverted into support areas, into social service-type of areas. Law enforcement, it's a challenge obviously, and I've said this many times that our police are getting guns off the street, they're getting criminals off the street, they're solving crimes where we have the right cooperation, or evidence, or whatever, almost as quickly as they're happening. So where is the chain broken? The chain is broken in the other areas, in the community areas. Structurally those are funded and supported through some of the other services that aren't here at City Hall.
So, I think that even an unlimited supply of money – while sure, getting more police officers would be great because it would alleviate the burden on the ones we have – but deterrent-wise, which is where you really have to focus and where you really have to make a dent into why this is happening, you have to get to the families, you have to get to why these young people are heading down these paths. Is it educational opportunities? There's been a lot of talk about that. That's much more complicated. That is where we really need to find systemic solutions for the long term, so that's where I think a lot of the resources I would say would need to be focused. Coincidentally, that's where you've seen a lot of the resources go away.
JW: In terms of deterrents, wouldn't asking City police officers to live within the city facilitate some of that deterrence?
JS: That's something that I think everybody would agree, that if officers still lived in the neighborhoods, it would be a good thing. But that's something that was awarded to them years ago, and it's just not going to change. You can't force that. It's outside of our providence to be able to force that, but I think myself and others would agree with you that it was definitely a positive when you had city police living in the neighborhoods.
JW: Couldn't that be initiated for new hires?
JW: How does it work in other communities that enforce that policy? Pittsburgh city police and Allegheny sheriffs are all required to live within their respective jurisdictions.
JS: I'm not familiar with it, because our circumstances are that we're not permitted to do that.
BS: One of the things that you had mentioned – going back to the Lisa Adams interview – was that by comparison, Erie is a safe city. What cities are your administration looking at in comparison, and what can we learn from those cities in terms of addressing violence? One of the things I'm thinking of is the Cleveland Heights second-tier policing model. I don't know if that's something Erie is considering or would find beneficial, but by comparison, where else are we looking outside of ourselves to say "these cities are doing it right" or "here are some things to avoid"?
JS: We've looked at cities all across Pa. and other parts of the country as well. What we're finding is that we are a safe city by comparison. A lot of it is circumstance. You see a lot of smaller cities that are more dangerous because they're along different drug lines that are known drug lines going from the North to the South. They have more gang activity that we don't really have here. So our circumstance is safer by comparison.
Some of the cities that are safe, if you look at the statistics that were out a few years ago, a lot of the safer cities are small, wealthier communities that aren't really prone to a lot of violent activity and crime, so I think for cities of our size, we're doing very well.
What we're seeing now are things that have been atypical for Erie for a long time. That's what we're trying to deal with. Of course we've looked at cities all over and what they've done, what works, what doesn't. There are problems with a two-tiered police system. You have civil service laws that govern hiring; you have veterans' preference and things of that nature. So I don't believe that is the solution. If it's more officers, then you'd hire them through the normal hiring practice, and I think that is the way to do it.
JW: In terms of action items, you've just initiated a restriction on curfews. Why did you wait until now? By the time that City Council passes the ordinance it seems that most of the kids would be back to school and the curfew would have been adjusted anyway. Why not do this in May or June? There seemed to be some sense that this was going to be a tough summer given the violence during the school year.
JS: What we weren't really seeing was a lot of violence among the age demographics that we've seen in the last couple of shootings. It was more of the 19-27 years old, and they're not governed by the curfew. Now we're starting to see some younger people getting more involved. We just think it's going to be a more useful tool. It's certainly not going to be a solution to it, but it does give the officers the opportunity to approach young people after ten o'clock as opposed to waiting until midnight. So that's more why we did that.
BS: Do you feel like the media is accurately portraying you and your vision and your thoughts on [the rise in crime and violence]? Do you feel like the perception is accurate, from a longer interview with Lisa (Adams) to a shorter interview with [WJET's] Caroline Collins, where the cameras are turned off and then brought back on?
JS: Well, I think the media is clamoring around one or two singular events, but what they're not privy to or accurately portraying because they haven't been around this issue is the work that we've done for nine years here. We've been working on these issues every day for nine years. It's not about one event. It's not about two events. It's about how we've been following the culture of crime in this community over nine years and that's not really been brought up at all. I understand what their mission is currently, but my philosophy on everything I've done here is to focus on solutions, not focus on photo ops or media or things of that nature, and I'm not going to start.
BS: Do you think one of the things that has been challenging for you is that there hasn't been [embrace of] that idea of "let's roll up the sleeves and get to work," rather than being out for a photo op shaking hands? That the media lose sight of successes because there's no public presentation of all the guns taken off the street?
JS: The media's mission isn't the same as ours. It's not the media's responsibility to have the institutional memory of everything that's been done in the past nine years. It's more to deal with what's happening right now, and I understand that. But there's a lot of people in this community that have been working very hard on this for a very, very long time. The district attorney, the U.S. attorney, Unified Erie that we started to put together a few years ago and we've done a lot with it.
The legwork is done primarily by the NRO (Neighborhood Resource Organization) at Mercyhurst University, and these guys are surveying young people, these guys have been out there and nobody sees the need to make that a photo op, which I think is fine. They're focusing on the solutions as well. But I think the immediate inclination when something catastrophic happens is to just focus on that, and really you lose the whole picture.
Again, it's not the media's mission to focus – nor do you guys have the real estate to write about everything that's gone on in the past nine years. I don't fault the media for anything that's happened. It's about perspective, and I think a lot of the people in the community have developed the right perspective over the years as to what's happening. I think our primary issue right now is that people in this community need to feel safe and we want them to. That's what we need to focus on as well.
JW: You've received some criticism for saying that you believe marches are ineffective and you want to see substantive actions, that's what you're trying to do here. Empirical evidence is on your side that marches don't have an impact on crime rates, but early on in your administration you seemed to be present at catastrophic events. Do you feel like if you were at 29th and Summit last week, would that have lent some sense of public perception of security or boots on the ground that may be lacking?
JS: I don't think my personal presence makes that kind of difference. People want to see results, and that's what gives them the sense of safety. I'll tell you, when I first started I went to all those things – and I still go to a lot of the fires – but I went to a shooting at Seventh and Ash with then-District Attorney Brad Foulk and I ended up in the wrong place. I was with Brad and we ended up inside the police tape. The police chief came up shortly thereafter and said, "I appreciate you coming out to these things, but when you go onto a crime scene it's not the best thing for us if you're inside police tape. You could end up on the witness stand or if something gets kicked or touched; that's not the right thing." So I said, "Okay, I'll stay away from some of the crimes just because I'm not a necessary party there." I took his expertise, and I don't go to as many of the police things anymore for that reason.
I still go if there's a big fire, because there's more room for extraneous folks there, but it was more along the lines to be supportive of our folks who were doing it. It was never for photo ops. It was just to show that I care what they are doing – and I do – and they know that. I continue to talk with them and be supportive of them. It's just that having another person at a crime scene might not be the right thing.
BS: I'm not sure if it was any one particular thing he wrote or his column in general, but your response to [ETN's] Pat Howard's column seemed like a tipping point where you felt like you had to respond publicly – you had to address it. Was that the tipping point? Or was it just the time you needed to be public and to get your thoughts on the record? What was going through your mind?
JS: You and I have actually talked about my stance to responding to editorial content. I don't think it's appropriate, and that's how I started that piece. However, when someone editorializes about whether an elected official cares about their community, then I think it's a bit much, especially if you look at what I've done here. I think that just becomes personal at that point. That's why I responded to that. Hopefully, it won't continue to go to that level, but if it does, I'm not going to sit idly back and let him tell me after everything I've gone through in nine years that I don't care about my community. The only reason I'm here is because I care about my community. That's the only reason I'm here.
JW: In your response to Pat Howard's column, you were dealing with Pat and [small-business owner] Dale McBrier and you made this turn to the Jefferson Society and nonprofits in the community. Why take that turn? It seemed an outgrowth of your interactions with Mr. McBrier.
JS: It wasn't to be critical of the Jefferson or any nonprofit in this community. The irony of it all – and you guys weren't at that meeting – if you had seen the whole thing you'd understand better. I actually got an email from the Jefferson afterward and I emailed back and said if you had been there you'd understand better. It wasn't an attack on you or nonprofits; it was simply a response to an attack on me in a public forum. Because the irony of it is that you stand up there and say we're not doing enough to find the money, when they're trying to get out of paying their taxes, and that's already gone somewhat down the road. But it was like look everywhere else, but not to me. That was what prompted that. My point is don't be hypocritical.
JW: Wasn't there an offer made by the Jefferson to pay taxes like other community nonprofits?
JS: There was an offer of a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes), but we've been of the belief from the beginning that they should have a valuation and go through the process like the others do. That was what the board felt as well, but I don't want to talk too much because it's still an open issue. But the process of that valuation is the appropriate way to do that. We've talked to them about the pilot.
JW: Isn't the PILOT program a good value for the community? The city spends a lot of money on research and assessment.
JS: They don't have a lot of services for us. They could do more along the lines of what the (Erie) School District does. We wanted the money, which they were fine with. We also think that through the process it's not going to be that different between the PILOT and what the valuation is.
BS: Going back to solutions within the community, where do you see yourself in that dialogue with organizations? Creating dialogue? Or just being supportive and allowing those community solutions to happen organically while the city focuses on law enforcement?
JS: The established social services have been doing their part for a long time. They have been. And those services continue to be there and there's been ongoing dialog over nine years between myself and different organizations and then the community organizations that need to get to rowing the boat in the same direction. That's really what has to happen. That's why the UnifiedErie movement is really the mechanism for that. We need more of the community groups to get involved in that initiative because right now we have a lot of folks out there doing good work, it's all very well intentioned, but you have a lot of small groups doing their own things.
My message has always been – and I've had many meetings with members of the clergy, members of the African-American community over these nine years to discuss just this – that until everyone is on the same page working in the same direction to create a united front and focus your resources on these problems. Unified Erie has taken a very technical, almost scientific approach to this, using stats and other things to formulate a solution. So people need to get going on that same page, and I think that's the right vehicle. That's where I'm focusing as well. Getting everyone to do that is a different issue but we've been focusing on that.
BS: In your role, you clearly can't be everything to everyone, but do you feel that the current tone of the city and the current understanding of the City's role – or misunderstanding of the City's role – makes you feel more inclined to focus more time and attention on violence and crime-based meetings so that people know you're plugged into that?
JS: This is something that's been a part of every single day that I've been here. I've spent time every day since I've been here – not on the problem as it is today – but on the problems that we've had with crime and violence over the years, whether it was the young people causing trouble in the streets or others. We've spent time every single day working on that and I will continue to. I'm not going to be at every meeting. That's just not possible. I have responsibilities to many other things and I will continue to serve those responsibilities as I see fit. I have a staff that goes to a lot of things that I'm not able to be at and when my staff is there, I'm there. I meet very regularly with each of my staff members to discuss, not only this issue, but all of the issues we face. So they go with my message and my plan and they represent me. That's why in positions like this you have people like that.
BS: To our demographic, to those who pick up the Erie Reader throughout the City and the County, what would you say your mission is as simply put as you possibly can?
JS: My mission has not changed since the day I walked through the door. That is to make this the best city we can. That includes making it safe, making it vibrant, bringing as many new opportunities here as we can and that mission hasn't changed.
Jim Wertz can be contacted at jWertz@ErieReader.com, and you can following him on Twitter @Jim_Wertz. Ben Speggen can be contacted at bSpeggen@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @BenSpeggen.