Without part-time officers, Westmoreland County communities could struggle

| Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Just before the afternoon stream of traffic stretches through the bedroom community of Manor, Derek Manley clips a radio onto his neatly-creased gray uniform — one of three that he will wear that week.

The second-year officer will split his week patrolling the streets of Manor and Southwest Greensburg and North Belle Vernon in Westmoreland County. “Of course I want a full-time job,” Manley, 29, said. “You have to pay your dues. That's understood.”

Without part-time officers, officials say some boroughs would struggle to afford local protection. Still, some local police chiefs and municipalities must deal with the challenges involved with providing coverage for municipalities using mostly part-timers.

“I think in some cases, it's just not economically feasible (to have full-time officers),” said Ed Knittel, senior director of education and sustainability for the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs, a Harrisburg-based group that promotes local government practices.

“A full-timer, in all honesty, could be fairly expensive. In addition to the hourly rate, you have benefits,” he said. “I think the elected officials are somewhat limited in what they can do in some cases. I think they do take responsibility of what dollars they have to allocate for what purpose is on their mind.”

The state borough code does not mandate police protection, Knittel said. Fire protection and emergency management are required.

Of the nearly 2,500 police departments in Pennsylvania, 133 of them — or about 5 percent — are comprised of only part-time officers. Those departments employ about 520 officers, according to statistics from the Governor's Center for Local Government Services.

Schuylkill County leads the state with 15 departments comprised of only part-time officers. Westmoreland County has six, and Allegheny County has two. Police departments in rural communities are more likely to depend on part-time officers, according to 2013 statistics from the Governor's Center for Local Government Services.

“Obviously, part-timers help those communities maintain police forces,” said John Mackey, chairman of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association and chief of Bethel Park police.

“I feel bad; some of these guys are working three or four jobs,” he said. “Those guys are all working those jobs because they want full-time jobs somewhere. As soon as those opportunities come up, they're gone.”

Scheduling coverage, chiefs say, is one of the biggest and most time-consuming challenges when dealing with part-time officers.

“Every minute of every day you have a police officer patrolling the community,” said T.J. Klobucar, chief of Delmont police. “It's very challenging for us for scheduling purposes.”

He, and other chiefs, pore over the individual schedules of their officers, piecing them together like puzzles. Because exhaustion could be a concern, they attempt not to schedule officers back-to-back.

“Guys are doubling,” Klobucar said. “You have to keep track of what they're working at other departments. You have to work around what days they have court. I don't know what the solution would be.”

By the end of his week, Manley will log at least 60 hours among his three departments and court appearances.

It's a schedule that sometimes requires coordination with other officers to trade shifts, he said. And although it gets hectic, Manley said he does his best to set aside time for adequate rest and working out.

In Manor, Chief George Valmassoni said five out of eight of his officers are part-time.

“A lot of guys work more than one shift in different departments so depending on their schedule, it's real hard,” he said.

Another challenge chiefs face is dealing with a revolving-door atmosphere. When a police officer is hired straight from the academy, the hiring department takes on the burden of paying for a uniform, training and certification for that officer.

When a part-time officer leaves, the process starts all over.

“A lot of work goes in,” said Randy Glick, chief of Derry Borough police.

In his department, four of seven officers are part-time. Any new officer spends weeks with veteran officers learning local streets and how to file criminal complaints.

“When they come here, they've never written a traffic ticket. You have to show them,” Glick said. “Same thing with a criminal complaint. Then you have someone in the holding cell screaming, yelling and spitting at you while typing up a criminal complaint. That's a whole different atmosphere.”

The high turnover can strain relationships police officers try to build with community business owners and residents.

Those relationships are key when a crime has occurred, Glick said. He always knows who to ask when something has happened in the borough, but part-time officers who might only spend 16 hours in the community a week don't have that history, he said.

Turnover in Irwin is something acting Chief Dan Wensel deals with a few times a year. Recently, three part-time officers were hired.

Irwin police officers also patrol North Irwin. The borough had always relied on a part-time officer, but after the last chief resigned in May, council decided to contract with Irwin for coverage.

Officers will acclimate to the area and learn the roads, but Wensel said he is not sure how long they will be around.

“Obviously, we want to hire the best guy,” he said. “You're hiring quality officers, but you know they're going to be gone sooner rather than later.”

Although he's only been a police officer for two years, Manley has been in public service since he was a junior firefighter at 14. He said he plans to stay in the field and get into a full-time position.

“I highly enjoy my job,” Manley said. “I like a challenge.”

Amanda Dolasinski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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