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Sheriff's proposal to aid Jeannette cops rejected as illegal

| Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Because of legal issues, Jeannette officials said, “Thanks, but no thanks,” to Westmoreland County Sheriff Jonathan Held's plan to use his deputies to back up city police officers.

In a letter to Held on Friday, city solicitor Scott Avolio said deputies are not considered police officers under state law, and any police-related work in the city will be handled “exclusively” by Jeannette police.

“Your office cannot lawfully provide any service which may be construed as police work. As I am sure you are aware, the Sheriff's Department may not participate in patrolling and/or investigating criminal matters that may occur within the City of Jeannette,” Avolio wrote.

“The presence of your department in no way will be considered by the city in calculating what shifts are given to police officers, nor the amount of officers employed by the city,” he added.

Mayor Richard Jacobelli said he met with Held on Monday to discuss the sheriff's offer to have deputies act as police officers in the city.

“The first issue we discussed was that deputies are not law enforcement officers,” Jacobelli said.

When a police officer candidate completes training, the Municipal Police Officers' Education and Training Commission assigns a certification number for each one in the state. Deputies are not certified by the commission. Although deputies and police officers both undergo basic training courses, the training for municipal officers is more extensive. Deputies undergo 160 hours of training, while police officers receive 520 hours.

Jacobelli said there is no formal agreement between the city and sheriff's office.

Held doesn't need the city's permission to have deputies in Jeannette, since they act primarily as officers of the court serving warrants for people who have failed to appear in court or skipped bond.

Held contends a state Supreme Court decision in 2006 allows deputies to make felony arrests and enforce the motor vehicle code for violations that they observe.

“Am I supposed to risk officer safety and public safety?” Held said. “If (Jeannette police) call us, they have a reason. An officer is in distress. Am I supposed to ignore officer safety and public safety?”

When Jeannette police officers respond to serious calls, they rely on neighboring police forces for backup, including Penn Township and Manor. They can request state police for help as well.

A series of court decisions have ruled that deputy sheriffs are not police officers, including a 1974 ruling in Allegheny County. Another decision in 1989 found there is “an historic and fundamental difference” between a deputy and a police officer.

The state constitution does not define “sheriff” or list the powers of that office.

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or rgazarik@tribweb.com.

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