By Justin Vellucci
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
The headquarters of Pittsburgh Police Zone 4 is an aging, brick-faced building on tree-lined Northumberland Avenue; it sits around the corner from the Squirrel Hill synagogue where a man opened fire last year on congregants during Shabbat.
The physical proximity of the building’s 89 law-enforcement officers to the attack and the victims has not made the past year an easy one and only has ensured that life since the shooting has never quite returned to normal.
“Immediately after, you have to calm the community – but how do you take these officers and calm 88,000 people in Zone 4?” asks Commander Daniel Herrmann, whose operation covers more ground than any other – some 15 square miles, to be exact.
The answer: through both safety and preparedness.
Over the year that has followed the synagogue shooting, Pittsburgh Police have conducted scores of bomb-threat and active-shooter drills at schools and houses of worship both Jewish and otherwise. They’ve even helped local businesses work at becoming more prepared to respond to dangerous incidents.
“I think how people reacted to it is they said, ‘If it happened there, it could happen here,’” Herrmann says. “I think everyone said ‘What can we do? What can we learn?’”
Officers also made their presence known at Jewish synagogues and schools following the shooting and during recent high holy days – Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur.
“It’s visible armed security,” Herrmann says. “Pittsburgh Police are the eyes and ears. And I don’t think people would challenge Pittsburgh Police as they do security.”
In cell-phone video that circulated around the Community Day School community on Facebook pages last year, one officer even took the job description a step further, stripping away the formality and veneer of seriousness as he played tetherball with students in yarmulkes to ease the tensions of the day.
But this also hit close to home for first responders. Some officers say the synagogue shooting unearthed emotions that had been buried since three police officers were slain in the line of duty by a white supremacist in Stanton Heights in 2009.
“Our preparation [for the synagogue shooting] was those officers getting killed,” says Detective Don Pasquarelli. “We’re pretty hardened. But there’s nothing that can prepare you for something like the shooting at Tree of Life.”
To that end, officers interacted with a therapy dog, Zane, which proved surprisingly effective. The officers also took comfort in an outpouring of respect and warmth from the community, Herrmann says. Though the mountains of food and cookies are long gone, Herrmann’s office still is home to a white game jersey from a Canadian junior hockey team that visited to pay its respects at the synagogue.
“Our lobby downstairs was wall-to-wall with cards,” Herrmann says. “We were just flooded with stuff.”
Brad Orsini has served as the director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh since 2017. He previously served in the Marine Corps and for 28 years with the FBI, the last 11 of those years right here in Pittsburgh.
In the past year, Orsini has reached out to dozens of religious and secular organizations, conducted countless drills, and become even more vigilant at tracking public expressions of antisemitism. He estimates he has trained about 8,000 people to be more vigilant about safety and security since the synagogue shooting.
“For us and our community, it’s the reporting of incidents that’s important,” Orsini says.
While Orsini cites an increase in Pittsburgh in antisemitic acts and hate speech – he declined to release specific figures – Herrmann says those numbers might be tough to interpret.
But Orsini does not expect any problems when Jews and Pittsburghers gather Sunday to mark the first-year commemoration of the shooting.
“We search social media and we search for any kind of hate speech [and] at this point, there are no known threats to our area,” he says. “But we’ll remain vigilant.”