Western Pennsylvania municipalities wrestle with police options
On a warm October afternoon, Smithton police officer Brice Joll was assisting in a manhunt for a Herminie man who allegedly ran away from a Westmoreland County Sheriff's deputies in South Huntingdon.
Joll was stationed at a field along Route 31, joining state and local police in the search for the suspect who had run into the woods along Turkeytown Road and eluded authorities who searched with the Greensburg Fire Department bloodhound and a state police helicopter. The suspect was eventually was captured the following day in Jeannette.
Joll, who also works part-time as a North Belle Vernon police officer, is a member of a Smithton police department, one of two area police departments which has officers patrolling other municipalities.
Smithton has agreements to patrol part-time in Madison and Sutersville, while Southwest Regional Police Department, which is based in Belle Vernon, covers Belle Vernon and Newell in Fayette County; Bentleyville, Coal Center, Cokeburg and Union Township in Washington County; and Gray, Morris, Perry and Wayne townships in Greene County. The regional police force serves about 15,000 people spread covering about 130 square miles from its headquarters in Belle Vernon and stations in Finleyville and Bentleyville in Washington County and Mt. Morris in Greene County.
Those municipalities that have hired the regional police services for part-time coverage, revert to state police patrols when the regional police are not working in their communities.
Both Smithton and Southwest Regional have proposed offering part-time police services in Sewickley Township and the supervisors are considering having local part-time police protection. The supervisors are reviewing the budget for 2014 and no decision has been made on the issue.
If Sewickley Township does contract for part-time local police coverage, Supervisor Wanda Layman said she favors having the police patrol the township 20 hours a week.
Sewickley Township receives police protection from the state police at the Greensburg barracks and that coverage would continue when the local police were not on duty.
Sewickley Supervisor Alan Fossi said he wants any proposal to hire local police for the township, to be placed on the ballot as a referendum for the voters decide, just as he had promised when he ran for office.
Supervisor Joseph Kerber said he believes that hiring local police may be too expensive for the township.
Smithton Police Chief Glenn Kopp said the advantage of contracting for local police services “is it is more cost efficient,” than a municipality operating its own system.
“Starting up your own police department takes a lot of money. That changes the ball game drastically,” said Kopp, whose department has nine part-time officers.
Smithton had offered to provide local police services in Youngwood and New Stanton several years ago, but the concept was never approved by local officials, Kopp said.
The advantage of local police patrols is not only the potential for quicker response, but the state police “have no power to enforce local (municipal) ordinances. They can only do state laws,” Kopp said.
Southwest Regional Police Chief John Hartman said, “Southwest Regional is the only regional police department in the state to provide services in three counties.”
“The key is how you deliver police services to a multiple number of communities. All of our procedures are designed to provide services to a multitude of communities,” Hartman said.
Some of the models for a regional police force are based on providing the services only in one county, said Paul McCauley of Indiana, a retired Indiana University of Pennsylvania retired criminology professor.
A locally-based police force can give towns the opportunity to enforce municipal ordinances and issue parking tickets, which the state police don't do, said McCauley, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on regionalization of police forces.
As a result of the growth in its service area, Hartman said that Southwest Regional is in the process of promoting some of its 16 part-time officers to full-time status. The department has four full-time officers and any decision to increase that number will be up to the board governing Southwest Regional Police, Hartman said.
Its officers provide around-the-clock coverage in Belle Vernon, Newell and Coal Center, while other municipalities contract for part-time police coverage that varies by hours and days, Hartman said.
While West Newton did offer to provide local police services to Sutersville a few years ago, West Newton Police Chief Gary Indof said the borough did not offer to provide police services to Sewickley Township.
Having local police protection for just 8 to 10 hours a week, “just don't cut it,” Indof said.
“There's a lot of things you can't accomplish unless you have round-the-clock protection,” Indof said.
Sutersville Mayor Alaina Breakiron is a supporter of the regional police concept, saying she is pleased with the part-time police coverage the borough receives from the Smithton police department. The borough had its own police department before she was appointed mayor in February 2012, but the officer resigned, Breakiron said. It made financial sense for the small borough to have part-time police coverage provided by another department, Breakiron said.
“I like the idea of going with Smithton and not continuing on our own,” Breakiron said.
Breakiron said she hopes that Sewickley Township opts for some local police coverage as well.
“Having Sewickley with (local) police coverage will benefit us,” Breakiron said. If there is an emergency in Sutersville, the police will be closer than the state police in Greensburg, Breakiron said.
Joll, 24, who patrols in Madison and Sutersville, as well as Smithton, said one of the advantages of local police protection is that an officer gets to know the area and people.
“You get to know people in such a small borough. People come up and talk to you,” Joll said as he patrolled Madison.
To prove that point, he stopped one driver he knew had an expired driver's license.
“I can't think of another job I would rather do,”Joll said.
Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-836-5252.