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Pittsburgh police leadership got big raises this winter

Megan Harris
90.5 WESA

In a little-noted move this winter, Pittsburgh City Council altered the city's 2022 budget to include raises of $4,500 or more to the police bureau’s 19 top positions — a hike that came just weeks after an earlier budget went into effect that already provided boosts of up to $9,500 for police command staff.

Council spent less than two minutes discussing the new increases last month, and their action has gotten little to no public attention since then.

During a Jan. 26 meeting, council President Theresa Kail-Smith said the goal of the increases was to prevent command staff from being penalized for taking a promotion. Lieutenants are covered by the police union contract and receive overtime, while commanders do not. While the 2022 budget boosted command-staff pay, more needed to be done, she said.

The commanders, she said, "were definitely underpaid,” and said many had taken a "pay cut that takes out their overtime."

When added together, the salary changes means that within the past few months, the city’s top 19 law-enforcement officials were granted raises of over 11 percent, or between $12,339 and $14,696.

By comparison, the top brass in the city’s Bureau of Fire — who did not get a second round of salary adjustments — saw their pay increase from between 3.5 and 6.5 percent last year. Leadership for the city’s Bureau of Emergency Services received raises between 6.5 and 15.3 percent, though the increases were doled out to a smaller number of leaders.

The timing of the move, which council approved unanimously, is notable. It came as Mayor Ed Gainey assumed leadership of the city after winning an election campaign that promised a rethinking of police — and that some supporters hoped might even lead to a reduction in police spending.

Council has shown it is willing to undertake those changes. In recent months, the body has focused on legislation to reduce the discretion police have to pull over motorists and pedestrians.

But Kail-Smith and Councilman Anthony Coghill, who also championed the salary adjustment, said they are concerned about losing more than command staff.

“We’re not losing a bunch of officers, but we have over 200 who can retire tomorrow,” said Coghill. “We need to keep the ones who are eligible to retire on the force until we can get reinforcements.”

Because of budget problems and the coronavirus, the city hasn’t had a class of police recruits for two years. The city has budgeted for a new class, but recruits will need nearly a year to complete their training.

Council undertook a second round of raises because “the previous administration was only comfortable” with a smaller increase, Kail-Smith said. Officials privately confirm that Peduto resisted calls to further increase the salaries, partly due to concerns about pay parity across the public safety workforce. So council revisited the issue once he left office.

The major driver of the raises was concern that the salaries of commanders — who preside over each of the city’s six police zones or head up other key divisions in the bureau — needed to receive a premium over lieutenants. Increases to those salaries bumped up the pay of the police chief as well as the deputy and assistant chiefs.

But Kail-Smith told her fellow council members that she saw bigger problems taking shape. “A lot of people don't want to become a police officer now,” she said.

So far, there is little sign of that hurting the city's ranks. Public Safety Director Lee Schmidt told city council earlier this month that the force was around 895 officers instead of its budgeted full complement of 900, and public safety officials late last week said that there’d been little change in that number since then.

But turnover is a longstanding problem in the city, due to retirement and officers taking better-paying — and often less rigorous — jobs in suburban departments. And policing shortages have been a mounting concern beyond the city’s borders.

In a letter last month to state legislative leaders, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro warned that “police departments across Pennsylvania were being stretched thin because of an historic shortage of sworn officers. …[A]pplications have fallen, recruitment classes have shrunk, and vacancies have increased.” He recommended a series of changes that included a $6,000 signing bonus for new public safety hires.

Even Kail-Smith seemed wary of that approach. But it reflects the kind of issue that Gainey may find himself facing in the months ahead.

So far, the Gainey administration has proceeded carefully on policing issues.

The Peduto administration’s public safety director, Wendell Hissrich, stepped down after being told he would not be retained by the new administration. But police Chief Scott Schubert remains in his post with no changes expected in the foreseeable future, and Schmidt, who Gainey named as Hissrich’s replacement, was also a Peduto hire.

Broader changes, meanwhile, will have to await a report due this spring from a “transition team” made up of activists and public-safety experts who will make policy recommendations to the mayor.

“This is a mayor,” said spokeswoman Maria Montano, “who really wants to get input from the community before making decisions.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.