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Overtime costs for Pittsburgh police and paramedics soaring so far in 2018

Bob Bauder
| Monday, May 14, 2018, 11:15 a.m.
Officer Dave Spinneweber (right) sits atop Guinness, Pittsburgh’s first mount patrol unit horse, Monday during the official opening of a police Substation, Downtown. On Friday, Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt donated a second horse to the city a 5-year-old shire breed named Spirit.
Bob Bauder | Tribune-Review
Officer Dave Spinneweber (right) sits atop Guinness, Pittsburgh’s first mount patrol unit horse, Monday during the official opening of a police Substation, Downtown. On Friday, Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt donated a second horse to the city a 5-year-old shire breed named Spirit.
Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich opens the city's new police substation on Monday.
Bob Bauder | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich opens the city's new police substation on Monday.

Crime has dropped since a police substation dedicated to covering Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle opened in November, but that coverage hasn't come cheap because the station is staffed exclusively by officers working overtime.

Police overtime increased by more than $500,000 during the first four months of 2018 compared with the same period in 2017. The substation is a major contributor to that increase, city officials said.

“It's new to us,” Pittsburgh police Chief Scott Schubert said. “We want to be sure we get it right. We want to make sure we meet the needs of not just the businesses down there, but we have a community that lives down there and we have every day 300,000 to 400,000 (commuters) in the Downtown corridor.”

Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich suggested the Downtown police station as a way to prevent fights, shootings and other violent incidents that have marred some large events, including Fourth of July fireworks, the EQT Three Rivers Regatta and Light Up Night.

Two police officers working eight- to 10-hour shifts, depending on events, staff it daily, Schubert said. The bureau is using 2018 as a pilot to track crime trends and determine staffing levels. It will assign officers to work there permanently in 2019.

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust provided the Lantern Building at 600 Liberty Ave. to the city under a five-year lease at a nominal rent of $1 per year, plus a $5,000 security deposit. PNC Bank donated office furniture.

Jeremy Waldrup, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, said violent crime has dropped since police increased patrols following violent outbreaks Downtown in 2016 and 2017.

The Public Safety Department reported an 11 percent decrease in Part 1 crime — including homicide, burglary, rape and robbery — Downtown and a decrease in police response times since the substation opened in November.

From August through November, police recorded 880 serious criminal incidents. In the four months after the opening, that number dropped to 780. Officer response times dropped from more than seven minutes on average to just under six minutes.

Overall crime Downtown dropped by 3 percent between 2016 and 2017, according to police statistics. Violent crime dropped by 17 percent over the same period.

“The substation's been a tremendous asset,” Waldrup said. “Everyone would agree that's it's been really nice to have officers in that facility and accessible to the Downtown business (and) residential community. We've seen a significant increase in their presence on the street, and that's one reason we see a steady decrease in criminal activity Downtown.”

Overtime for city paramedics has also increased so far this year compared to 2017 because of understaffing, Hissrich said. Emergency Medical Services, to date, has expended about 47 percent of its $3.4 million overtime budget, he said.

Hissrich said the city needs 161 paramedics, but has only 138 with 10 vacancies, nine paramedics on modified work assignments because of injury, three off because of illness and one on military leave.

“I can't get enough medics,” he said.

Schubert said special weekend patrols of 12 to 14 officers in Pittsburgh's South Side bar and restaurant district have added to increasing overtime costs along with major events such as the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade.

The police bureau so far in 2018 has spent about $3.7 million on premium pay, about 37 percent of its $9.9 million overtime budget.

Overtime for the fire bureau, however, has decreased by about $230,000 since January compared to the same period in 2017, according to Hissrich. He said it's because the bureau has a full compliment of about 653 firefighters.

Robert Swartzwelder, president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, blamed the police overtime on “gross understaffing.”

Pittsburgh for years has struggled to maintain budgeted staffing levels in the police because of retirements and resignations. Schubert said 70 officers left in 2017. About half of them retired and the rest resigned for jobs in other areas.

The bureau is budgeted for 892 officers. It has 850 officers with 90 in the police academy or undergoing field training.

“You open a mini station Downtown where you realize you don't have enough coverage, so you staff it with overtime,” Swartzwelder said. “You don't have enough people on the South Side, so you staff it with overtime.”

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312, bbauder@tribweb.com or on Twitter @bobbauder.

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