City police ranks 'horrendously low'; 22 recruits join the force
Newly made Pittsburgh police recruits pledged to add strength to the bureau, but the 22-member class isn't enough to fill openings from departures this year.
They occur at a time when the officers in the bureau are subject to added job stress from an ongoing federal investigation that led to the indictment of former Chief Nate Harper on theft charges and stained the careers of other employees at police headquarters.
“There are a lot of senior officers leaving,” Officer Bobbie Bertalan told the crowd during the recruit graduation ceremony on Friday at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in Highland Park. “We will make a difference.”
At least 36 city officers have resigned or retired, up from the 35 who left the force in 2012, according to police pension office figures.
“The manpower in the zones is horrendously low,” said Sgt. Michael LaPorte, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1. “Officers are forced to work overtime. They're exhausted. The stress level ... it's making them want to leave.”
The police union for years has warned police and city officials that the number of officers eligible to retire is dangerously high. This year, 294 in the 875-member force are eligible to retire, according to the department's 2012 annual report.
That figure grows to 338 next year and 489 in 2015, according to projections from the 2011 report.
“We believe it was obvious the storm was on the horizon,” LaPorte said. “The storm is on our doorstep. We can't churn out enough officers quickly enough for the exodus.”
Acting police Chief Regina McDonald said the new officers will help alleviate manpower shortages among street patrols. The class started in August with 41 members, including 12 recruits with law enforcement experience who graduated early.
Four recruits have not completed their training. At least one was terminated and others left, McDonald said.
Many of the officers will begin their careers in Zone 2 in the Hill District and Zone 5 in Highland Park, which have the most vacancies, she said.
“It's a step in the right direction,” McDonald said. “There's a class in the academy now, and we're working to get another class ready to start in March.”
A class with 31 recruits began at the training academy in April. Six of those recruits have police experience and are in field training with patrols, Lt. Jennifer Ford said. It takes a typical recruit class about 10 months of classes and field training before members are sworn in as full officers, McDonald said.
“It does take a long time, but it takes time to prepare officers to face the challenges,” she said.
Deputy police Chief Paul Donaldson cautioned the new officers against immediately seeking out a position with a suburban department. Several officers, citing better pay and school districts, left the city for jobs in Monroeville, Ross, McCandless and other departments in recent years.
“It saddens me,” Donaldson said. “I know some of you are thinking of taking the training and applying it somewhere else. It's not always better. The grass is not always greener.”
Margaret Harding is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8519 or firstname.lastname@example.org.