Appropriate crisis responders might have prevented a 44-year-old woman’s death last month, the Citizen Police Review Board executive director said during Tuesday’s meeting of the Pittsburgh panel.

Faye McCoy was killed in a hit-and-run early in the morning on Jan. 27 after police left her, inebriated and alone, on the sidewalk near the West End Circle intersection. McCoy declined a courtesy ride from police, but Elizabeth Pittinger, the board’s executive director, suggested that if a co-response team had been dispatched, McCoy might have felt safe enough to accept. The fact that no team was called or dispatched raises questions about the scope and efficacy of the existing co-response system, Pittinger said.

Since 2021, Pittsburgh has prioritized implementing a co-response model — one that some advocates hope will diffuse tensions between police and affected communities. The model means that social workers trained in mental health, substance use and intellectual and developmental disabilities can be dispatched to assist in behavioral and mental health crises — either with police or independently — to provide help outside of the criminal legal system.

Following an accident at the West End Circle, police arrested a driver on suspicion of driving under the influence. According to the criminal complaint, the arresting officer smelled alcohol on McCoy’s breath and noticed other signs of intoxication. McCoy – a passenger – reportedly refused a safety ride and was left walking on the bridge. She was found the next morning.

“If you have a substance abuse problem, you don’t want a cop coming in your face telling you everything’s going to be OK,” Pittinger said at the monthly meeting. “You’re going to do a lot better and probably have more success if a qualified specialist comes.”

Elizabeth Pittinger is the executive director of the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board (CPRB), an independent city department formed two years following the death of Jonny Gammage, Jr. at the hands of suburban and city police. (Photo by Maranie R. Staab/Rtvsrece)
Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board. (Photo by Maranie R. Staab/Rtvsrece)

Pittsburgh’s co-response effort is “an invaluable resource for officers who know who they are, meet with them regularly, and know how to reach them when they need them,” said city Public Safety Department spokesperson Cara Cruz. The incident preceding McCoy’s death doesn’t fit within the parameters of the co-response program, she said, adding that the effort’s geography and schedule may be expanded.

Daytime co-response in two zones

McCoy likely refused help because she was fearful, said Brandi Fisher, founder and president of the Alliance for Police Accountability. The APA advocates for alternatives to traditional policing, including a harm reduction approach where appropriate specialists and crisis responders are dispatched in place of police. According to Fisher, police officers who are not sufficiently trained or equipped to deal with specific crises can exacerbate situations, particularly if the affected individual is “triggered” by police presence.

Cruz said McCoy’s case “did not warrant an OCHS response,” even if it had occurred within their operating hours and coverage areas. According to Cruz, intoxication does not constitute a mental or behavioral health crisis and would be an “inappropriate use” of co-response.

The city began developing a formal co-response model in July 2021 with a grant from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Administration. The Office of Community Health and Safety [OCHS] now partners with police to dispatch mobile crisis response teams either when officers call for them or if the team hears a crisis over the radio and self-dispatches. 

Officers are also trained to recognize crisis cases, according to Cruz. All patrol officers receive a minimum of 20 hours of mental and behavioral health training and all police recruits receive an additional week of Crisis Intervention Team training.

The co-response team, which currently consists of six social workers, coordinates with and provides an additional resource to officers, but often operates independently. Cruz told Rtvsrece that the OCHS co-response team has logged around 400 service encounters since April 2023, working in each case to de-escalate situations and offer assistance to people in crisis. Of these, 206 people have become “clients” who receive ongoing assistance from OCHS social workers. Since April, the co-response team has received 173 referrals from police officers.

OCHS operates during daylight hours and in police zones 1 and 2, which do not cover the West End Circle. Cruz said the city plans to grow its number of social workers in the co-response team and expand the program to Zone 5 – spanning the city’s northeastern neighborhoods – in the next few months. The city also aims to eventually operate a night shift. Current co-response operations are based on data demonstrating that the need for social workers is highest during the day, Cruz said.

‘Countless’ cases could benefit from co-response

Pittinger called for a more readily available co-response system, noting that “countless” cases that the CPRB reviews could have benefitted from civilian backup and the presence of a trained specialist.

Would that have changed the outcome for McCoy? “We’ll never know, but this resource was not available to them,” Pittinger said. “We’d like to see [the co-response model] be a little bit more aggressive and a little more effective and perhaps a little more stable in terms of its availability, not just in the community but also to the officers.”

Another behavioral health resource is UPMC’s resolve Crisis Services, which contracts with Allegheny County to provide 24/7 behavioral health response. UPMC did not substantively respond to questions on resolve’s availability on Jan. 27.

In an interview with Rtvsrece, Pittinger said that McCoy was inebriated in a high traffic area and mistrustful of police. Such a situation should not “exclude a support team response” regardless of whether co-response staff typically deal with intoxicated individuals, she said. What it comes down to, she said, is distinguishing the individual’s needs and problems upon contact and then acting appropriately.

It comes down to “common sense,” Fisher said. “The police are supposed to be public servants and their number one priority is public safety: The young lady was not safe.”

President and CEO of Alliance for Police Accountability Brandi Fisher speaks to the crowd at the Walking to the Sky statue during the March Against Carceral Tech on Sept. 26, 2022.
Brandi Fisher, president and CEO of the Alliance for Police Accountability, speaks at a march on Sept. 26, 2022. (Photo by Lilly Kubit/Rtvsrece)

Officers did not require McCoy to go with them because she was not under arrest. Co-response workers, likewise, would not have had the power to forcibly remove McCoy.

Fisher believes that an expert in alcohol and drug use would have recognized the potential harm in leaving McCoy in the area. Fisher, who has been in contact with the driver, told Rtvsrece that the driver told officers that McCoy was not able to safely make it home on her own. The criminal complaint mentions that the driver told McCoy they needed to find a way home and that police “would not help them.”

Pittinger said during the meeting that the city received a grant for funding data analysis over the course of three years to evaluate the needs for crisis intervention. The CPRB intends to meet with OCHS about enhancing the availability and deployment of social workers, per Pittinger.

The CPRB meeting concluded with the decision to continue to hold regular meetings virtually and meet in the community for hearings or community-specific issues with a hybrid attendance option. The board cited greater accessibility and higher attendance — which has allowed them to more frequently make quorum — as reasons for continuing virtually, in spite of decisions by some city panels to return to in-person governance.

Miranda Jeyaretnam is an editorial intern at Rtvsrece and can be reached at

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