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Study says Pittsburgh police force is adequate, but urges restructuring

Pittsburgh Police Chief Larry Scirotto stands at a podium next to Public Safety Director Lee Schmidt
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh Police Chief Larry Scirotto presented some of the study's findings at a press conference Wednesday.

A long-awaited police staffing study has found that Pittsburgh has an adequate number of officers, but too many are assigned to patrol units instead of more specialized jobs. It recommends decreasing staffing of patrols considerably.

The study found that when it comes to officers on patrol duty, Bureau of Police practices “demonstrate excessively high staffing levels relative to need and risk,” and that merely “adding positions would have no appreciable impact on service.”

That’s a stark contrast to the picture painted by the police union, whose spokespeople have repeatedly described the staffing as “crisis-level.”

The bureau has been steadily shrinking as officers leave for retirement or jobs elsewhere. It’s budgeted to have 900 officers, but currently employs 787, according to the police union. A considerable number of officers still on the force meet retirement eligibility requirements which could exacerbate the problem.

Police Chief Larry Scirotto said Wednesday that he remains “committed to this number of 900,” despite the consultant’s recommendations. And he pointed to two recruit classes scheduled this year as evidence of his commitment to boosting staff. But he added that the study proves the city’s police “aren’t in crisis.”

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Mayor Ed Gainey commissioned the $180,000 evaluation last year from Matrix Consulting Group, a California-based firm with law enforcement expertise. His administration claimed that officials needed a full evaluation of the force before making any changes. It’s the first such study of the bureau since 2005.

Although the data comes from 2021 when the force was larger than it is now, Matrix was tasked with evaluating the organizational structure of the police bureau, and to make recommendations about how to reallocate officers more effectively.

Matrix found that Pittsburgh’s Bureau of Police maintains an “exceptional” response time, with even the lowest-priority calls getting a median response time of 16 minutes. The study found that the bureau’s patrol officers have 71% of their available hours remaining after calls for service are handled, which is well above the 50% level that Matrix recommends. The report claimed this finding was consistent regardless of the time of day or the day of the week.

According to Matrix, “This is a significant outlier for a large metropolitan police department.” The consultant recommended that 188 patrol officers be reallocated to investigative units or other assignments.

Bob Swartzwelder, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, contested the premise that patrol units are overstaffed, noting that patrol officers are often required to work overtime to cover vacant shifts.

“Why did I just have 22 officers forced into double shift in the last 24 hours if that statement is true?” he asked. “Either the study is invalid, or police command is mismanaging its force.”

Swartzwelder said between Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning this week, officers were required to complete 148 hours of overtime with “no big events or anything” to require additional resources.

He said the overtime demand gets higher when the city hosts major events like the marathon or St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Report is ‘guidance … not policy’

Mayor Gainey stressed Wednesday that the study was just a “great roadmap to start with,” and that not every recommendation would be taken up by the bureau. In fact, Scirotto said he strongly disagreed with several recommendations.

“I don’t want to reallocate any patrol operations,” he said.

Matrix’s suggested number of patrol officers would be the “minimum requirement,” while he’s chief, he said, but added, "We’re not seeking to hit a baseline. We're seeking excellence."

The study recommends that patrol officers be reallocated based on the needs of each zone. Matrix recommended the following patrol staffing numbers:

  • Zone 1: 42 officers (down from 50)
  • Zone 2: 46 officers (down from 61)
  • Zone 3: 49 officers (down from 59)
  • Zone 4: 44 officers (down from 49)
  • Zone 5: 48 officers (down from 52)
  • Zone 6: 34 officers (down from 43)

The study notes that 26 currently vacant patrol positions could be eliminated, but Scirotto said Wednesday that he has no plan to eliminate any positions at all.
He said the study based its Zone allocations on the number of police calls, but said the number of calls for service doesn’t necessarily reflect a need for more officers.

“Some of our zones are leading in calls for service, but those calls for service are parking complaints,” Scirotto said.

He also disagreed with a proposal to assign 45 officers to an expanded Community Resource Officer program, which would “conduct community engagement and problem-solving at the local level.”

Scirotto said he plans to adopt community policing strategies bureau-wide instead. “They all have that same responsibility for community engagement,” he said.

A less contentious recommendation was that between 12 and 15% of service calls could be diverted to a civilian alternative response unit, which would keep officers free to respond to more specialized calls. Matrix recommended 11 new community service positions to respond to non-emergency calls and two supervisors to oversee the unit.

City officials support the idea of “civilianizing” some jobs to free up officers for calls that would require their training.

“We don't want to create burnout for our officers," Schmidt said. "We don't want to have them doing unnecessary tasks that can be done by civilians or other units or other bureaus."

Gainey administration officials have had the results of the study since May, but a spokesperson said the administration wanted to install Scirotto as chief before publicizing the findings. Officials said Wednesday that they also delayed releasing the study after finding discrepancies in the data about call volumes.

Swartzwelder claims the final version of the study still has different figures than he came up with for call volumes in 2021 and 2022.

As part of the study, Matrix also surveyed more than 600 officers about staffing levels, morale and other matters. The consultant found that understaffing was a top concern, along with a “lack of support from city leadership.”

But while 66% of respondents said the department was not headed in the right direction, 61% said the bureau provides a high level of service to the community.

Updated: July 19, 2023 at 4:31 PM EDT
This story has been updated.
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.