Pittsburgh struggles to recruit officers

Police are having a hard time replacing retirees and bringing the bureau's strength to 900

By Robert Zullo
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh is struggling to recruit and retain enough police officers to replace retirees and meet Mayor Bill Peduto's pledge to bring the bureau's strength to 900.

More than eight months after the mayor's first State of the City address, in which he said the city was "poised to have — as I have long promised — more than 900 officers on the force for the first time since 2002," the police bureau numbers 842, including a class of 34 recruits in training.

According to Officer Howard McQuillan, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 1, 365 officers, more than a third of the department, are eligible to retire. So far this year, 49 have retired or resigned, Officer McQuillan said at a special city council meeting Monday on public safety staffing.

At the hearing, Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith pledged to resurrect a requirement that police staffing not fall below 900 if Mr. Peduto's administration doesn't convince her that a plan to boost recruitment and retention is forthcoming.

"We need to talk about what more they can do," she said as she left the meeting.

The hearing came after a bloody weekend that saw five shooting incidents that killed two people and wounded four between Friday night and early Monday.

"I'm watching kids shot every single day," Mrs. Kail-Smith told police Chief Cameron McLay. "I'm watching senior citizens afraid to walk down the street."

The shortfall is years in the making, said Sam Ashbaugh, director of the city Office of Management and Budget. The city hired no recruits in 2006 and 2010 and hired only 12 in 2008.

It brought in 33 in 2011, 40 in 2012, 30 in 2013 and 52 in 2014, Mr. Peduto's first year in office. It also has lost officers to better-paying suburban departments.

"We're dealing with an inconsistent approach to staffing that started a decade ago," Mr. Ashbaugh said.

Mr. Ashbaugh said the city has another class of about 40 recruits starting in August that will hit the streets next July and is planning a March class of roughly the same number.

"Are we spread too thin? Absolutely," said Chief McLay, who added it was difficult to link the bureau's low numbers with the weekend's violence.

"The things that drive crime are highly complex," the chief said.

"There's well-established research that shows that preventative presence of police in a community tends to reduce incidents of crime and disorder. ... I wouldn't try to make the argument that: 'Give me 50 more cops, I can stop the violence.' "

The chief also announced plans to conduct a staffing study to determine the number of officers the bureau needs, a move that drew some derision from council members.

"We don't need another study to know people are getting shot every day. We don't need a study to know that we're understaffed," Mrs. Kail-Smith said.

Councilwoman Darlene Harris also was skeptical.

"A study just gets put on a shelf and nothing ever happens," she said.

Coypright 2015 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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