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FOP, oversight board challenge Pittsburgh PD chief’s reorganization plan amid staff shortage

One oversight board member fears that changing department structure may cause officers to “jump ship,” leaving the force with even fewer officers

Pittsburgh police set to realign next year amid union concerns about staffing

“What’s his plan to implement this?” asked Pittinger. “Too much at one time just leads to institutional chaos. And more people will jump ship.”

Pittsburgh Bureau of Police via Facebook

By Justin Vellucci
The Tribune-Review, Greensburg

PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh police are working to realign the shrinking 770-officer force in the new year, but union leaders warn that the bureau shouldn’t reorganize in the midst of a staffing crisis.

In 2024, Chief Larry Scirotto said he plans to launch a street crime team, hire a dozen young adults as “community service aides,” and move over to a 10-hour workday, four days a week for many officers.

Officers working daily between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m., typically the city’s quietest period for crime, also will begin responding to calls in two zones at a time instead of one, public safety officials said.

The street crime team will boast 18 officers, two sergeants and lieutenant. The unit plans to use data to track repeat offenders and aim to drive down incidents of violent crime in Pittsburgh, said Scirotto, during a recent Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board meeting.

“This is meant to be my Number 1 strategic initiative, which is the reduction of violence, of gun violence, in our city,” he said.

Scirotto stressed that there would be strict oversight on the team and careful selection of its officers.

“Having the right people and having the right oversight is critical to ensure it’s following the vision we all have — the chief, the mayor, myself — to focus on the most violent criminals and take them off the street,” Public Safety Director Lee Schmidt told TribLive.

The Pittsburgh bureau in 2024 will hire 12 people between ages 18 and 22 to be “community service aides,” Scirotto said. He also hopes it will become a key recruitment tool.

The changes, part of Mayor Ed Gainey’s proposed 2024 operating budget, align with the mayor’s Plan for Peace, Schmidt said. Among other measures, that plan called for more civilians to engage with the community on non-emergency police matters.

Police union head Robert Swartzwelder said he’s concerned Scirotto is shuffling around officers when the bureau is understaffed and its officers overworked.

The police bureau currently employs 770 full-time officers, spokeswoman Cara Cruz said. Under former Mayor Bill Peduto, Gainey’s predecessor, the force exceeded 900. In the 1990s, the roll call was above 1,000.

The bureau continued to lose officers this year at a record-high rate.

A total of 45 officers resigned from the bureau so far in 2023 — the largest single-year total since the union started tracking resignations in 2013, Swartzwelder said. Thirty-two officers retired this year and an additional 21 to 24 officers plan to retire before Dec. 31. One officer died of natural causes.

Swartzwelder estimates the bureau will be down to 750 officers by Jan. 1. About 729 officers will be available for street duty, he said.

The bureau’s budget funds 850 officers next year, and both Scirotto and Schmitt stressed staffing will grow through hiring out of three new police academy classes in the new year. The 850 figure is down from 900 positions this year.

The union worries the numbers keeps dropping.

“You want to do a reorganization when you’re still losing people? That becomes problematic,” said Swartzwelder, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #1, which represents Pittsburgh police officers.

As of December, about 210 Pittsburgh police officers also have served 20-plus years in the city, which makes them eligible for a pension-funded retirement, Swartzwelder said.

“If 210 officers walk off the job tomorrow, which they’re entitled to do, we’re screwed,” said Beth Pittinger, executive director of Pittsburgh’s Citizen Police Review Board.

Gainey had pinned many questions about staffing on a much-anticipated “Matrix study.” Pittsburgh police in July released that study, conducted by California -based Matrix Consulting Group, but ignored at least one of its key findings.

The study, the bureau’s first such study in more than a decade, said city police have an “exceptional” response time of under 16 minutes. It also called for the bureau to take 188 officers off patrols. Both Scirotto and Gainey challenged that latter finding.

“I stay committed to this number of 900,” said Scirotto, at a July press conference.

“That study was a hot mess, it was a joke, and it didn’t analyze reality, didn’t analyze all the events the city has,” Swartzwelder said. “If you’re overstaffed, why are you forcing anybody to do anything?”

Swartzwelder previously has said staffing is at a “tipping point.” He warned during a January public hearing that, without more officers, “you’re going to see a crime-wave that’s unprecedented.”

Pittinger, who directs the review board, invited Scirotto to speak to her group recently to quell some of her concerns about the chief’s reorganization, she told TribLive.

“What’s his plan to implement this?” asked Pittinger. “Too much at one time just leads to institutional chaos. And more people will jump ship.”

“I think they’re good goals,” she added, pointing out that her board recommended the community aide concept 20 years ago. “But I’m not sure we’ll survive them.”

Schmidt, the public safety director, defended the plan’s timing.

“When you have limited resources is when you have to prioritize those resources,” Schmidt said. “That’s what we’re looking to do, ensuring we have officers where there’s the highest need ... You put your resources where they’re needed at the time.”

He also touted how Scirotto’s plans, which he feels echo Gainey’s public safety vision, will help Pittsburgh police do its job better.

“It’s a matter of making public safety smarter, more efficient, more proactive,” Schmidt said.


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