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Exodus strains Pittsburgh police force

| Sunday, Jan. 18, 2015, 11:06 p.m.

The murder of a friend in high school drew Matt White to a law enforcement career, and Pittsburgh had a reputation for offering generous benefits when he started in 2000, he said.

But after nearly 13 years, White said he thought working conditions at the job he loved would decline.

“I had no intention of ever leaving,” said White, who's an officer in Monroeville. “But nothing seemed to be going our way.”

White was among the more than 100 officers who left the Pittsburgh police department in 2013 and 2014, according to figures from the police pension office. He said he worked security at bars and other businesses to earn extra money to send his two children to private schools. He worried that the pension he was working toward might not be there.

“I had nothing but really good and positive experiences with the people in the department,” White said. “I was very fortunate to do a lot of things that a lot people will never do in their career. But it wasn't enough to keep me there because of the pay and benefits.”

Monroeville pays officers some of the highest salaries in the state among municipal departments with a base salary of $52,000 and up to $102,648 for a detective or patrolman with at least four years of experience and $108,888 for a lieutenant. In Pittsburgh, base pay for lieutenants is $79,000, and first-grade detectives make about $64,500, according to the 2015 budget.

Pittsburgh police officers are leaving faster than the city can replace them, presenting a challenge for a chief who wants to increase neighborhood policing with a force that's stretched thin.

“I'm looking very carefully at my staffing, and things are very tight,” new police Chief Cameron McLay said. “We may have to get creative. I predict at some point, staffing is going to be a concern.”

In 2012, 35 officers left. Seventeen had submitted paperwork as of Wednesday to retire in 2015.

“We're losing at both ends,” said Officer Howard McQuillan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1. “We're losing senior people that have been here 20-plus years, and we're losing people with less than five years on the job that come in and get the training and leave.”

McQuillan said some factors prompting officers to leave include better pay in suburban departments; the requirement that officers live in the city, which the union is battling in court; and the uncertainty of contract negotiations. This year, one homicide detective retired to take a job with the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office, and another left to join the sheriff's office.

Tim McNulty, Mayor Bill Peduto's spokesman, declined to comment on the pay disparity claim, citing confidential contract negotiations.

A mass hiring of more than 400 officers between 1993 and 1995 has led to a surge of officers eligible to retire in recent years, something union leadership has long warned about. Officer Dan O'Hara, a past president, told the Trib in 2012 that the retirements and resignations of officers would lead to a “young, inexperienced department.” Sgt. Mike LaPorte, also a past president, said in 2013, “The storm is on our doorstep. We can't churn out enough officers quickly enough for the exodus.”

“We've told this administration and prior administrations time and time again what the problems are,” McQuillan said. “The salaries are $10,000 to $14,000 lower than neighboring departments; the workload is increasing with less people and the uncertainty of the contract.”

The city will pay first-year officers $42,548, according to the 2015 budget. First-year officers in McKees Rocks, for example, earn just over $49,000. In Philadelphia, where the cost of living is higher, police recruits make $46,412 a year, which increases to $49,632 after graduation, according to the department.

The city hired 83 officers in the past two years, but the department remains about 50 officers short of the 892 that are budgeted, public safety spokeswoman Sonya Toler said.

McLay began in September with a mission to build bridges between police officers and communities because of high-profile, racially charged incidents in recent years. McLay said that to accomplish his goal of community policing, officers need discretionary time to get to know residents, rather than spend shifts running from call to call.

“The less police officers you have physically in the community, it's going to be that much harder to commit to a community policing strategy,” McQuillan said. “It's the numbers. If you don't have the numbers on the street, then you're not going to be able to do more community policing.”

Noting that “all forms of crime aren't created equal,” McLay said an option could be expanding the types of police reports that can be done over the phone.

David Stacy, president of the Zone 1 Public Safety Council, said he hasn't noticed an effect in police services.

“I'm a person who would like more police in the city, but our Zone 1 police department really steps up,” Stacy said. “We do not have that lack of police presence.”

The city hired 52 recruits in March, which is the same number of officers that retired, resigned or were terminated in 2014, according to the pension office. Thirty-five of the departures were retirements, and 13 were resignations. In 2013, 54 officers left.

There are 36 police recruits in field training, Toler said. A class of about 40 recruits is set to start the academy in February, McNulty said. It typically takes about 10 months of classes and field training for recruits to become full officers, although for recruits with police experience, there is some accelerated training.

“We're going to get creative to train as many as we can,” McLay said. “But we're constrained because you can't rush quality.”

Margaret Harding is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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