Western Pennsylvania police departments, part-time officers stretched thin
Nick Bartoszewicz routinely finds himself working around the clock as a part-time police officer.
Last Wednesday, Bartoszewicz, 26, started an eight-hour shift with the West Deer Police Department at 8 a.m. After going home for dinner and a few hours of sleep, he was back on the clock by 11 p.m. for another eight-hour shift, this one with the Indiana Township Police Department.
He was scheduled to go back on the clock again late Thursday.
“It’s tough, definitely tough,” Bartoszewicz said of the routine. “But I enjoy it.”
Bartoszewicz’s grind isn’t uncommon for many part-time police officers in Western Pennsylvania, who work for multiple departments to make ends meet.
Departments across the region are increasingly relying on part-time officers as tightening budgets limit how many full-timers can be hired.
At the same time, part-timers are becoming harder to find as enrollment dwindles at local police academies.
Dennis Marsili, director of Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Criminal Justice Training Center, said enrollment at its three academies has dropped over the past decade.
“We would run, maybe, 40 or so cadets in a full-time class,” he said. “Now, we average about 25 for a full-time class.”
Superintendent Coleman McDonough of the Allegheny County Police Department said 15 cadets graduated from the county’s academy in 2015, the lowest total in the past five years. The most recent class had 31 cadets graduate.
“It looked like there was a little trend downward between 2015 and 2017, but it seems like, hopefully, it’s on the uptrend again,” he said.
Marsili said it’s hard to pinpoint one reason for the decline, but news coverage of incidents involving the use of force by police and an improved economy are two big factors.
“The economy is doing a little better, so people tend to go to jobs other than public service jobs,” he said.
Chiefs weigh in
West Deer police Chief Jon Lape said his department used to get 20 applicants when they had a part-time position open. The latest opening drew only five applicants.
That can make it a challenge to find the most qualified candidates.
Lape said it’s also a challenge to retain part-timers. Part-timers often stay for only a year or two before leaving for a full-time job.
“It’s a revolving door every year,” he said.
Irwin police Chief Roger Pivirotto said he would rather have a staff of full-time officers than rely on part-timers because “it takes years and years to become a proficient police officer.”
But Pivirotto, whose department has four full-timers, needs to hire part-time officers to fill out the schedule. Council recently discussed the possibility of adding a fifth full-time officer.
Many departments spend thousands of dollars to train and outfit new part-time officers only to see them leave after short stays.
“Basically, we’re a training center for the bigger departments,” Pivirotto said, acknowledging the loss of part-timers to state police and larger municipal police forces.
Another challenge is scheduling part-time officers, knowing that they are stringing together more than one part-time job to make a living.
“Did they get enough rest,” Pivirotto said, “so that they don’t make a mistake and wreck a car” or make some other error?
Monessen police Chief James Smith said there is no way to monitor the amount of hours a part-timer has worked in another municipality and whether that part-time officer is sufficiently rested when on patrol in Monessen.
“What kind of detriment is it to the other officers he is working with?” Smith asked.
Bartoszewicz said he manages only about three to five full days off each month and doesn’t get paid time off for vacations.
West Deer’s Lape said he sees department consolidation as a way to fix the issue.
“There’s going to have to be consolidation,” he said. “You have to put all your resources together.”
That’s an option being explored by departments in Cheswick and Springdale Township in a move recommended by the state Department of Community and Economic Development as a cost-saving measure.
Cheswick struggled to cover its shifts this year after former Chief Bob Scott retired as part of a lawsuit settlement and several part-time officers resigned.
Chief Mike Naviglia, who runs both departments, has expressed support for a consolidation, citing better coverage and better training for part-time officers.
East Pittsburgh officials are considering a regional police force after its department disbanded and went to state police coverage after an officer-involved shooting that left 17-year-old Antwon Rose II dead.
Marsili said they’ve put a renewed focus on training cadets on how to handle situations without using force.
“We are really concentrating on verbalization and communicating, whether it’s a heated, possible combative, suspect situation or just simply talking to the public,” he said.
He said they also are trying to recruit more cadets who are minorities.
“We are going to, and have been, visiting schools in areas where we feel we could recruit (from) a minority community,” he said.
In the meantime, part-time officers will continue doing a job they admit is exhausting, but they love.
Joshua O’Connor works for departments in Oakmont and West Deer. He said his military training as a Marine for four years helped prepare him.
He sometimes works up to 10 consecutive days before a day off. He’s always looking for a full-time position but is happy to work for two departments that work with him and his schedule.
“Really, you just have to want to do this job,” he said. “An office job is not for me.”
Emily Balser is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Emily at 412-871-2369, email@example.com or via Twitter .