Opinions lukewarm on Pittsburgh, Wilkinsburg police merger

| Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Wilkinsburg leader said on Tuesday that a proposed police merger with Pittsburgh faces "an uphill battle" because the city would replace borough officers.

"This is, I think, our one opportunity for a large-scale improvement," said Jason Cohn, president of borough council, who has discussed the merger with Pittsburgh officials. "Unfortunately, it's not as attractive because we'd be losing our current officers, and that's a pretty bitter pill for our community and the officers to swallow."

Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper declined to comment through spokeswoman Diane Richard, saying the proposal is in the early stages. Wilkinsburg posted the city's proposal on the borough website yesterday with a message stating the posting was to "clear the air for residents about what is actually being proposed, which is seven more officers than we currently have, stationed in the Borough Building 24/7."

The proposal puts 29 officers in Wilkinsburg but does not say whether any would come from the borough's complement of 22 or 23 officers. Joanna Doven, a spokeswoman for Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, could not say whether the city would replace the officers.

"We're open to shared service agreements that save taxpayer dollars," said Doven, who called the talks preliminary. "We were approached by Wilkinsburg, and in order for this kind of thing to work, both parties have to be for it."

Cohn said merger talks began last year, months after the city began providing fire services for the neighboring borough of 17,000 people.

Wilkinsburg council members reviewed the proposal but do not plan to vote on it anytime soon, Cohn said.

"Two things have to be present -- it has to save lives and make people safer, and it has to have a good amount of backing from residents," Cohn said. "If we don't have both those things, we're not going to do it."

Wilkinsburg police Chief Ophelia Coleman -- a former Pittsburgh detective -- said she hasn't been involved in merger discussions and declined comment.

Residents spoke out against the proposal at meetings this month, and a Facebook page called "Support Wilkinsburg Police Department" has 227 fans. The site urges people to voice their concerns to borough officials.

"You have a lot of good guys down there who work very hard," said Carl Bailey, principal officer of the Teamsters Local 205 that represents Wilkinsburg officers. "It's far from a bedroom community. All the residents know if they get rid of their police, (crime is) only going to get worse."

In the fire merger, the city hired Wilkinsburg firefighters, who belong to the same union as city firefighters.

Merging police would be more complicated, in part because the departments have different union representation. City officers belong to the Fraternal Order of Police.

The Wilkinsburg police contract expired this year, and contract negotiations are under way.

"It looks to me to be a very difficult plan to implement," Cohn said.

The borough will pay the city $7.6 million for fire protection during the life of a contract that runs through 2015. Pittsburgh estimated the cost for police services to be about $3.4 million in 2012, according to the proposal. The borough budgeted $3.2 million for its police department last year. Borough manager Marla Marcinko and Mayor John Thompson did not return messages.

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