All Commentary
Saturday, March 1, 1997

Dying for a Pizza

Why is Government Attacking Businesses instead of Fighting Crime?

Mr. Reiland is associate professor of economics at Robert Morris College in Pittsburgh.

It started as more than 50 people were being killed in Los Angeles by rioters who didn’t agree with the verdict in the Rodney King case. That same night, while the rest of us were watching the mayhem on television, Carl Truss of Schenley Farms in Pittsburgh’s Hill District called Pizza Hut for a pie.

The store said it was too dangerous that night to deliver to Truss’s neighborhood, a predominantly African-American area. Now, after investigating the case for over four years, Charles Morrison, Director of the Human Relations Commission of Pittsburgh, says it’s a case of illegal redlining: We’ve determined there is probable cause to believe that it is more likely than not that a discriminatory act occurred here. We found that they did deliver to areas that had greater incidence of crime yet were not perceived to be ‘black areas.’

Morrison is referring to the Oakland section of the city—home to the University of Pittsburgh, Chatham College, Carlow College, and Carnegie-Mellon University—where Pizza Hut takes its risks to deliver to a large student market. That’s a judgment call by a store manager, but most Pittsburghers, I’d guess, would see Oakland as safer than the Hill District on the night of the Rodney King riots.

We don’t want any business to be exposed to putting their drivers in harm’s way, says Morrison, but there has to be a basis for denying service. You can’t just say, ‘We hear it’s bad there.’

With the way the Human Relations Commission operates, the burden of proof is on the store, a case of being guilty until proven innocent. The Commission is saying that pizza managers, on top of juggling teenage workers and other workplace headaches, must also be proficient in crime statistics by street and neighborhood in order to stay out of court. There could be a loss history, explains Morrison, such as, ‘When we go to ABC street, we get robbed.’

The year after Truss didn’t get his pizza, Jay Weiss, a 34-year-old man who worked for Chubby’s Pizza in Pittsburgh’s North Side, was killed by two teenagers while delivering a pizza. As the driver was dying, the boys sat on a curb and ate the pizza.

A few minutes after Morrison was interviewed on the Jim Quinn radio talk show in Pittsburgh, Dan, a former Pizza Hut driver, called the show to explain how it looked from the inside. We had drivers robbed every day, he said. In East Liberty, we had the same driver robbed three times in one day. They usually robbed us with a gun—they know we’re not allowed to carry a gun, or more than $20. They’d rob us just for the pizza. If we’d drive to Schenley Farms, they hid in the bushes across Herron Avenue to rob us. Drivers would quit after a couple days.

Morrison explained to Quinn’s listeners that the Human Relations Commission in this case was going after a large company, not a mom-and-pop store, as if it makes any difference if someone’s son or daughter is shot while delivering pizza for a rich multinational corporation or Chubby’s.

As it now stands, one government agency can fine a restaurant owner for not being careful enough if a young kitchen worker simply picks up a grinder part and places it in an automatic dishwasher, while on the same day another government agency can fine the same owner if he’s overly careful about sending the same employee out on an unsafe delivery.

When cases like Pizza Hut’s wind up in court, the business can be fined for discrimination for not sending drivers to certain areas or, conversely, fined for sending drivers to unsafe areas. At the Blue Coat Inn in Dover, Delaware, a waitress sued her employer for inadequate security after she was abducted from her car in the restaurant’s parking lot, then raped and robbed. The Inn routinely provided escorts for waitresses to their cars, and on this night a busboy accompanied the waitress to her car. After the busboy returned to the restaurant, the criminal gained entry to the car through the waitress’ open window as she sat in the car counting her tips. The Delaware Supreme Court upheld the $600,000 verdict against the restaurant.

As I’m writing this, the local news is reporting that a bus passenger was shot behind the ear in Homewood, a poor African-American neighborhood. During the morning rush hour, in broad daylight, the bus was caught in a crossfire from two pistols and a shotgun.

What’s needed here is an attack on crime, not an attack on businesses that are fed up with dodging bullets. Rather than telling pizza shops how to run their businesses, the first task of Pittsburgh’s public officials should be to worry about their own job performance. That begins with making the streets safe enough so that people—black or white—aren’t afraid to ride a bus or deliver a pizza.

  • Ralph R. Reiland is an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University and a columnist with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.