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City Council sounds the alarm about Pittsburgh's shrinking police department

A Pittsburgh Police hat.
Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh’s Bureau of Police will likely be budgeted for 900 uniformed officers next year. But with the bureau struggling to replace police leaving the force, it’s unclear when — or if — there will actually be that many officers on the payroll.

At a budget hearing Thursday, city police officials reported that the city has lost 76 officers so far in 2022, leaving the force with 836. Two recruitment classes are planned over the next year, including one made up of experienced officers coming in from other municipalities. But some city officials argued that won't be enough.

“At that pace, we’re just going to be in a lot of trouble, I believe,” District 4 City Councilor Anthony Coghill said. “We have to do an aggressive recruiting campaign.”

Only eight recruits made it through the preliminary stages for the academy’s current class of experienced officers, according to Public Safety Director Lee Schmidt. That’s considerably less than the bureau anticipated. Schmidt said other officers were filtered out by the city’s extensive background check.

“We don't just want just anyone,” he said. “You know, policing here is different than it might be in the suburbs. So we don't want to always just accept people and we don't want bodies. We want the right people.”

Pittsburgh’s Bureau of Police did not respond to WESA’s requests for more information about why some officers from the city’s suburbs were unqualified to serve in the city.

The next recruit class of new officers won’t start training until next summer. The training academy lasts about 11 months.

Schmidt said the city received 200 applicants for that class. The bureau plans to accept 35 trainees at a time. But even if all 35 officers graduate and join the 8 officers from the current class, the force still won't have fully recovered its losses from 2022.

Schmidt said he’s hopeful the city will be able to put a third group through the police academy at the end of 2023.

The number of Pittsburgh Police officers on the street has been shrinking steadily, both due to retirements and officers leaving the bureau for other municipalities, according to Schmidt. And he said a hiring freeze during the pandemic added to the challenge of maintaining a fully staffed force.

To manage the shortage, officers often pick up overtime shifts. Coghill argued that overtime is an expense for taxpayers, and that tired officers could be dangerous.

“We all know one mistake as a police officer makes the whole department look bad. And when you're going on four hours sleep and pulling out a double shift because you're needed … that's a recipe for mistakes,” Coghill warned.

Council president Theresa Kail-Smith echoed those concerns during Thursday’s hearing.

“Maybe they use a gun at a time that they shouldn't… maybe they just didn't calculate it right or something,” Kail-Smith said. “I’m also worried than an officer is going to be injured.”

One change the bureau will make next year is returning the police work week to an eight-hour shift, five days per week, according to acting Police Chief Thomas Stangrecki. Officers currently work four 10-hour shifts per week. Stangrecki argued the move should help police “provide sufficient response."

The bureau expects to make other changes next year after recommendations from a staffing study are released. The city entered into a $180,000 contract earlier this year with Matrix Consulting Group in order to study police staffing levels and how adequately officers are distributed.

Schmidt said the results of that study are expected later this month.

Some council members offered suggestions about how to stretch the city’s trained officer headcount further by reassigning some officers from desk jobs to patrols. District 7 Councilor Deb Gross said the department should consider how many trained officers it needs for patrols and investigations — and whether some tasks could be handled by civilians.

“We could be doing better at covering work that needs to be done without taking officers off the street,” Gross said, suggesting that one-third of positions held by uniformed officers be considered for civilians.

She also called on public safety officials to determine exactly how many officers it needs for daily shifts. Stangrecki said Thursday that he wasn’t sure of those ratios, but expected that information to be laid out in the forthcoming staffing study.

While the city awaits those recommendations, council members proposed police officials consider what they can do immediately to make the bureau more sustainable.

“I think we need to do as much as we can to get people on [the force],” Kail-Smith said. “We need something done now. We need something done yesterday, obviously.”

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.