At Local Police Departments, Inequality Abounds
Where you live in Allegheny County determines what kind of police officer responds to your call for help.
High-paid, low-paid, full-time, part-time, experienced, inexperienced, well-equipped or poorly equipped — it's a roll of the geographic dice, according to an analysis by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which discovered wide disparities in funding, staffing, training and workload among the county's 109 police departments.
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While communities with the most violence or highest number of 911 calls might need the most robust police services, the Post-Gazette's analysis found those communities often support police departments with limited budgets and low-paid, part-time officers, while richer communities with less crime can afford to spend more on police.
From the two-man police department in Fawn to the nearly 900-member Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, Allegheny County contains more police departments than any other county in the state. This patchwork, which involves more than 2,700 officers and $340 million in annual spending, creates far-reaching divides — some residents are served by full-time officers who take home $71,000 salaries, while others get help from part-time officers who earn $10 an hour.
The best-staffed police departments in the county have 10 times more officers per resident than the least staffed, and the best-funded departments have more than 10 times the budget per resident than the poorest.
The police officers in Allegheny County who face the highest crime and poverty rates in their communities are also typically the lowest paid, the Post-Gazette found. Officers don't stay as long in communities with lower pay, and in three of the lowest-paying departments, the average officer has been on the job only a year. In more affluent communities, officers average more than a decade on the job.
The current patchwork of police departments across the county won't work for the long-term, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said in a recent interview, and it reflects how some communities, forced to cut budgets after losing industry and revenues decades ago, are struggling to provide not only quality policing but also all basic municipal services, harming residents' quality of life.
"If you've got a shrinking population and shrinking tax base, but the geography doesn't shrink and you've still got to patrol the same square miles, it makes it very difficult to be sustainable," he said.
A community's crime doesn't dictate police resources, the Post-Gazette found. Both Oakdale and McKees Rocks have 14 officers, even though Oakdale reported a single violent crime and no property crimes in 2017 while McKees Rocks had 79 violent and 324 property crimes.
In McKees Rocks, there are fewer than two officers for every 1,000 calls for service. Police departments in the county average four officers for every 1,000 calls. In richer areas, departments have dozens of officers for every 1,000 calls they receive.
"There is no rhyme or reason," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. "Some communities can afford more police, so they have them. Others can't."
Yet independent, small-scale policing has deep roots not only in Pennsylvania but across the nation. Politicians, community members and police unions have for decades resisted attempts to merge departments, arguing that small local departments can provide personal, tailored police services to their communities better than a centralized force.
"There's a lot of duplication, there's a lot of redundancy, but that's really the way American police have evolved," Mr. Wexler said.
In Munhall, which has a 23-member force, Chief Patrick Campbell thinks the benefits to local policing outweigh the challenges.
"You know your residents, you know who is trouble, you have a personal connection with those people," he said in September. "You get to know a specific area, street, neighborhood, and you know what goes on in that neighborhood."
But, he added, it's a "double-edged sword."
"I can tell you I've had my windshield broken, I've had sugar dumped in my gas tank, and I've had someone enter what he thought was my home and punch the guy laying bed, thinking it was me," Chief Campbell said, adding, "I'd moved."
He's got enough funding to hold his officers to a professional standard, he said, but acknowledged that's not the case everywhere.
"I know there are neighboring places that have more than us, and there are neighboring places that have way less than us," he said.
While officers in Munhall have a starting salary of about $21 an hour, in neighboring Whitaker, officers on the 10-person, part-time force start at $10 an hour and top out at $14.80 an hour.
Next door in Homestead, the department's three part-time officers start at about $16 an hour and the 13 full-timers start at $20 an hour.
Pay has more than doubled in Homestead since Chief Jeff Desimone started full-time on the force in 1998, and the department's ratio of part-time to full-time officers is better than many Mon Valley agencies.
"There was The Waterfront," he said. "Money started coming in."
The vast shopping complex pays taxes, and also pays for a full-time officer assigned exclusively to its grounds. The borough also pays another officer, assigned to Barrett Elementary School, using federal funds.
Homestead still struggles to keep policies and technology up to date, the chief said.
"A lot of times it's not a matter of getting the equipment and software — it's a matter of maintaining it," Chief Desimone said.
By contrast, Penn Hills, one of the largest municipalities in the county, has a new police headquarters and training facility, including a firing range. Police Chief Howard Burton said the disparity between his and other departments shows up in pay, training and length of service.
He sees the need for departments to consolidate, but he understands the reluctance of some smaller surrounding communities to give up their identities.
No minimum standards
Struggling to keep policies up to date is a common problem at resource-strapped departments, Wexler said. While larger police agencies are able to attend conferences and training, smaller agencies can't afford the same access and often work with policies that are decades old.
"The reality is they get very little training, very little guidance and very little supervision, so they're left on their own to put together what they can," he said.
All Pennsylvania police officers must go through 919 hours of basic training designed by the state, but subsequent on-the-job training varies greatly among departments. At some agencies, state-certified officers receive little to no additional training.
In June, East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld shot and killed 17-year-old Antwon Rose II as the unarmed teenager ran away from a traffic stop. In the wake of the shooting, which was captured on video and attracted national attention, East Pittsburgh police admitted they did not have written procedures for the handling of critical incidents like officer-involved shootings.
The Post-Gazette requested budget, salary, staffing and policy data from all 109 police departments in the county and received information from every one. East Pittsburgh was the only department without written policies, but three others acknowledged their manuals are outdated: Duquesne, Homestead and North Braddock.
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. and the county's Chiefs of Police Association maintain model policies and procedures that any department can use, Zappala said, but there's no way to force departments to adopt the standards.
"A municipality can open a police agency and there is no minimum standard," he said. "There no accountability, no audit process for what the police department needs to be able to provide to the public."
Zappala requires officers to get approval from his office before charging some felonies, and requires officers who specialize in investigations to meet certain training criteria. He aims to use the DA's office as a way to hold police to a professional standard.
Zappala brought homicide charges against Officer Rosfeld in Antwon's death; the officer is awaiting trial. In December, East Pittsburgh shut down its force and accepted free coverage from Pennsylvania State Police.
During a December interview, Zappala ticked off problems in East Pittsburgh: part-time force, not well-trained, trouble recruiting, real crime to deal with — and estimated a quarter of the county's police departments are in similar situations.
"What East Pittsburgh demonstrated was that the people have to have confidence in their criminal justice system," he said. "And when they looked at that scenario, and people started looking deeper into how the department is run, the background of the people, the training, I don't think they do have confidence that East Pittsburgh can run a police department."
State police are required by law to provide free police services in areas with no local coverage. In some counties, state police cover the majority of communities, but in Allegheny County, they provide full-time policing in just three municipalities, now including East Pittsburgh.
Maintaining an independent police department is a matter of pride for some small communities. In Heidelberg, which at 0.26 square miles is the geographically smallest borough in the county to have its own force, residents want to keep the nine-officer department, six-term Mayor Ken LaSota said.
"I do know the people in Heidelberg really support this," he said. "It's not like we're relying on the state police to just drive through once in a while."
Low pay is 'wrong'
Small communities regularly rely on each other to help shoulder the burden of local policing by coming to each other's aid on critical incidents or busy days, crossing municipal borders to lend a hand.
Reached on a Tuesday in September, Ingram Chief Jack Doherty had little time to talk.
"Can I call you back?" he said. "They just had a shooting in Kennedy that I have to assist on."
In the end, he decided to send his lone on-duty officer to the shooting, while he remained in his borough in case of an incident there. His eight-officer department regularly gives and gets help from all of its neighbors.
"It's a weekly thing that we back each other up, it's not just an occasional thing," he said.
Crime flows across borders, said Jonathan Ingram, a senior associate at The Novak Consulting Group in Ohio that has extensively studied police consolidation in Pennsylvania. Small departments are confined to their own jurisdictions, he said, and may not be well-equipped to handle larger investigations that cross borders.
"There are certainly positive working relationships," he said, "but in terms of a broader regional approach to crime, there are some inherent limitations to having a fragmented policing set up around a metro area."
And while the close proximity of neighboring departments allows police to help each other, it can also make it difficult for lower-paying departments to retain their officers, especially part-timers. East McKeesport Chief Russell Stroschein, who's been at the department since 2003, has seen firsthand a revolving door of part-time officers.
"I've probably got 60 plus people from here who have gone on to full-time jobs," Chief Stroschein said. "So the way I look at it, I'm hiring the right people and giving them what they need to be attractive to other places, because they're getting hired at really good departments."
Chief Stroschein added he feels East McKeesport's force is well-equipped. He's got five part-time and three full-time officers; about half have fewer than three years' experience.
Cash-strapped communities in Allegheny County rely heavily on part-time officers to staff their police departments, the Post-Gazette found. It's cheaper than hiring full-timers because municipalities typically don't pay benefits, but the part-timers tend to be less experienced and less trained.
Part-time officers are "fine for a stop-gap measure, but I find it's not a very reliable way to have a sustainable police department," Ingram said.
Chief William Wanto, of Leet, has a force split roughly between full-timers and part-timers, and he worries about the resilience of the latter.
"Oftentimes we hire a part-timer, they get with other departments, and they work as many as three or four departments," he said. "It just beats them up — it really does. You've got to be really careful that you don't get the tail end of a double or a triple shift, because then you don't have them at 100 percent."
There's movement at the state level to raise pay for part time officers, said state Sen. Jim Brewster, D-McKeesport, who plans to reintroduce legislation to do so next year.
"We should not be paying $10-11 and hour," he said. "It's wrong, it's not enough, and that's why they work in three different communities."
Brewster, along with Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, and several other Democratic politicians, said in September they'd be pushing several policing reforms at the state level, including creating a uniform use-of-force policy for all departments.
"At the end of the day, individuals are better served when you've got consistency in training and in accountability," Costa said in a recent interview, adding that the disparities in pay and staffing "highlight the need for more regional departments."
In addition to hiring part-timers, many of the region's police chiefs have found they're receiving fewer applications for open positions than they have in years past, a recruitment crisis they say is happening in law enforcement across the country.
In September, Lincoln police Chief Richard Bosco was juggling a roster with four vacancies.
"The economy is good, so there are well-paying jobs out there," he said. "We average somewhere in the $16, $17 an hour range for our employees. .You can drive a truck in the gas fields right now and earn $24 to $30 an hour."
On average, police officers in Allegheny County are paid $18 an hour. First-year Pittsburgh police officers earn $21 an hour; Castle Shannon officers start at $40 an hour.
Controversial police shootings have also made it more difficult to recruit, Chief Bosco said. Other chiefs said younger people aren't interested in shift and holiday work, and pensions hold less appeal because they require staying in one job for 25 years.
The chiefs who spoke with the Post-Gazette also noted that conversations about consolidation and regionalization have been ongoing for decades — but haven't lead to widespread changes.
When Chief Campbell started in Munhall two decades ago, the consensus was that consolidation would happen within eight years, he said.
"Here we are," he said, "23 years later."
This story was written by Shelly Bradbury based on her reporting and that of Andrew Goldstein, Christopher Huffaker, Rich Lord and Ashley Murray.