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Gainey administration to relax higher education requirement for Pittsburgh Police recruits

A Pittsburgh Police cruiser parked outside of the Bureau's headquarters on the city's North Side.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
A Pittsburgh Police cruiser parked outside of the Bureau's headquarters on the city's North Side.

Pittsburgh is changing some college credit requirements for recruits entering the police academy. Officials in Mayor Ed Gainey's administration say they’re aiming to expand who is eligible to become a police officer as the city struggles to maintain a fully staffed force.

Since the late 1990s, recruits have had to complete 60 college credits, the equivalent of an associate degree, prior to entering the academy. Officers could finish those credits while they were on a waiting list for a class, but unless they qualified for a military duty waiver, they had to meet that requirement before the first day of training.

According to city spokesperson Maria Montaño, removing that requirement will help the city boost and diversify its force.

“As we’ve talked to hundreds of officers … what we’ve discovered is that this actually creates a barrier for entry for individuals who don’t have the ability to pay for college,” she said. “Having 60 credits before you walk in the door … doesn’t necessarily make you somebody who’s going to be a better officer.”

Under the new policy, officers would earn most of their required credits at the academy. Recruits can earn 45 credits at the academy, which qualifies them to begin working as an officer. Montaño told WESA that those who hope to be promoted to the rank of sergeant or higher would be required to complete the 15 additional credits at a college or university.

According to Montaño, the policy will be in effect next spring, when the city hopes to train a new class of officers. But it won’t apply to current efforts to recruit a class of officers from other municipalities.

The change was first announced at a Homewood community event Tuesday evening by Lisa Frank, the city’s Chief Operating and Administrative Officer. The announcement was met by raucous applause from the nearly 100 people who attended the meeting with city leaders at the Community Empowerment Association.

A public safety spokesperson declined to comment on the matter. The police union president also declined to comment, noting the changes apply to new applicants and not current union sworn officers.

Beth Pittinger, Executive Director of the Citizen Police Review Board, said Wednesday that she had not heard about the change. But she said the review board strongly supports the college credit requirement. She argued that it ensures the force is comprised of mature officers able to de-escalate and make tough decisions in a high-stress environment.

“We have to expect that our police officers are well-rounded individuals. And education does tend to develop that,” Pittinger said. That position, she said was "not an elitism. It’s not an arrogance. It’s looking for mature individuals who have the capacity to learn, [who] have a mature patience.”

Pittinger noted this isn’t the first time city officials weighed changing the education requirement. In 2002, Pittsburgh City Council commissioned the review board to conduct a study of officer qualifications. The board presented evidence that showed education prerequisites were not the primary reason that minorities and women were not applying to be officers. Instead, the board found that the physical screening often disqualified women.

Pittinger claimed it was disingenuous to think lowering the educational requirement would solve the city’s struggle to recruit a force that reflects the city’s population demographics.

“It is the same issue and the same assumption made today as was 20 years ago by City Council,” she said. “Don’t look at the police department to continue to lower its standards.”

Responding to similar concerns Tuesday night in Homewood, Jake Pawlak, Deputy Mayor and Director of the Office of Management and Budget, stressed that the city would still do thorough background evaluations on each applicant. Changing the college credit requirement, he said, doesn’t mean the city is lowering its standards.

The city, he said, will continue to "do our due diligence to make sure that the types of habits of mind that are important are still valued."

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.