BY: HALLIE LAUER
Fix the county jail, reimagine a juvenile detention and rehabilitation center, expand mental health services, and make the Pittsburgh region safer. Those are the main components of Republican Joe Rockey’s public safety plan as he campaigns for Allegheny County executive.
Mr. Rockey unveiled the policy proposals Thursday as he was endorsed by multiple local law enforcement unions. The Fraternal Order of Police Lodges 91 and 1, which represent Allegheny County and City of Pittsburgh officers, respectively, both backed him. So did the Allegheny County Prison Employees Independent union, which represents correctional officers.
“It means a great deal to me to have the people who, everyday in their lives, put their lives at risk to protect us and to provide public safety for the 1.3 million citizens in Allegheny County,” Mr. Rockey said at FOP headquarters in West Homestead. “Bringing public safety to the forefront of our county will be at the top of my list as I lead my administration.”
Mr. Rockey is the “only candidate in the race who is seen as unambiguously pro-law enforcement,” Bob Swartzwelder, the FOP Lodge 1 President, said in a statement.
At the Allegheny County Jail, Mr. Rockey wants to focus on increasing staff and making sure the mental health and morale of employees is adequately taken care of.
“Clearly management at the jail has failed,” said Mr. Rockey, a former PNC executive who ran unopposed in the May GOP primary. “We wouldn’t be where we are where 20 individuals have passed in the last 30 months if management was doing a great job.”
A spokesperson for the jail said that there had only been 12 deaths of incarcerated people in that time frame, however that number does not include people who died after being transferred to the hospital from the jail. At least 19 people have died in the jail or shortly after leaving the facility since 2020.
Mr. Rockey would not say if he planned to replace Warden Orlando Harper, but did say that part of his plan for fixing the jail is making sure it has “the right management” in place.
Mr. Rockey faces Democratic nominee Sara Innamorato in the November general election. Ms. Innamorato, who resigned from her seat in the state House last week, has already said she would fire Mr. Harper if elected.
The GOP nominee has challenged Ms. Innamorato to a series of five debates. The two committed last week to a live one-hour debate on Oct. 3, hosted by WTAE and the League of Women Voters.
Mr. Rockey promised Thursday to attend all Jail Oversight Board meetings, something outgoing County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a term-limited Democrat, has been criticized for not doing. And Mr. Rockey said he would take politics out of the board.
“The board oversight committee spends more time making political points than actually solving the problems that have existed for several years,” he said.
Mr. Rockey also wants to find a new place to house juvenile criminal offenders. He said he doesn’t want to reopen the Shuman Center, which closed in 2021, but would consider using the same building for a different type of center.
“There is a need to put a child somewhere where they can separate from the environment that has led them to where they are and give them a chance to engage in rehabilitation, while the criminal process is progressing forward,” he said.
The main focus of a new center would be rehabilitation, using resources from the county health and human services departments, Mr. Rockey said.
Mr. Rockey said he would increase the county police force by 10%, so officers can assist other municipalities needing the support. A Safe Streets Task Force, made up of people from law enforcement, the district attorney’s office, victims of violent crime and community members, would be tasked with developing a strategy to reduce crime.
And Mr. Rockey also wants to focus on increasing mental health care in the county, by working with state and federal officials.
“The Allegheny County Jail is not the place to provide mental health services,” he said, referencing a 59-year old man who died in the jail over the weekend while waiting for a bed in a mental health facility. “We need to increase the capacity within the criminal justice system to provide mental health services in the appropriate manner.”
To broadly increase mental health services, Mr. Rockey said he would work with the region’s health systems to expand their programs.
“We’re not spending the money we should be spending to have the right statewide facilities to support them,” he said. “That is an issue that needs to be brought to the governor’s attention, the legislature’s attention, and it needs to be addressed.”
And Mr. Rockey promised to listen to victims. In addition to law enforcement members, Laurie MacDonald, the president and CEO of the Center for Victims, spoke in favor of Mr. Rockey’s plan.
“The plight of victims is often overlooked and it’s important for them to have a voice,” she said Thursday. “Joe Rockey’s plan includes our voices. It’s been a long time coming and very much needed.”