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Police out to change their image

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2001

Brentwood Mayor Ron Arnoni hopes everyone takes notice of the borough's two new police cars, which should be easy because they'll look nothing like the others.

The borough's police cruisers with the blue and gold stripes are on the way out. Coming back are the black-and-white patrol cars of yesteryear, likely to be emblazoned with the familiar motto, 'To protect and to serve.'

Officials hope getting back to basics will project an image of professionalism and help continue the recovery of a department rocked by scandal and controversy during the 1990s.

'There was a negative light unfortunately and unjustly on the community and the department,' Arnoni said. 'That has cleared now, and we'll continue to move forward. We are going to be one of the best police departments in the South Hills.'

The department's problems have included the death of a black motorist, Jonny Gammage, after a scuffle with five white officers in 1995; the former fiancee of an officer, John Vojtas, killing herself with his service revolver in 1993; the firing of Police Chief Wayne Babish in 1996; testimony of improper behavior by officers, including driving while intoxicated, destroying evidence and committing perjury; and in December the demotion of Police Chief George Swinney to patrolman.

Lt. Frank Caputo, the department's commanding officer and a 26-year veteran, said the department has learned from its past but is not carrying any baggage.

'We're beyond that,' he said. 'That's in the past, and we're talking about the present and the future.'

Arnoni said the department has overcome the controversies.

'The light at the end of the tunnel is starting to shine upon us,' he said. 'This borough is serious about having a professional police department supplied with the best equipment and training.'

The borough is leasing the new Ford Crown Victoria patrol cars fully equipped for $24,619 per year for three years. The department's current vehicles will be repainted to match the black and white design. One of the cars will replace a car in which the transmission was replaced only to then have the engine go.

'That car is like our office,' Caputo said. 'We have to be able to depend on it. It's everything to us.'

The borough council recently approved other purchases for the department along with the cars. They included spending up to $650 to replace two refrigerators, up to $1,600 on new carpeting and up to $40 per month on Internet access.

'It shows the guys this borough, this council and this mayor are serious about having a professional police department,' Arnoni said of the purchases. 'It's serious about supplying this police force with the best equipment and training and making sure our residents are safe.'

Caputo said even little things, such as the new carpeting, will help improve the department's morale, which Arnoni said is much improved after being mediocre.

'Your work area and your environment have a lot to do with your morale,' Caputo said.

Later this year, the borough will begin looking at expanding and updating the police department in the municipal building space soon to be vacated by the fire department, Arnoni said.

'We're going to have one of the best police facilities in the area,' Arnoni said.

The borough also will pursue obtaining state accreditation for the department, which could result in lower insurance rates along with respect, Arnoni said.

To improve officer pride in the department, scheduling changes will be made to reduce overtime, one or two new officers may be hired and specialized training will be offered.

To reach out to the community, Arnoni said officers will return to walking the beat once the weather improves, will hand out tip sheets about proper use of seatbelts and child seats and increase contact with children by appearing more often in the schools. A citizens police academy, at which residents can learn about police work, might be offered this year.

'We'll continue to take the steps and measures necessary to continue to gain the confidence of our public,' Arnoni said. 'I think we've done that.'

Brian C. Rittmeyer can be reached at brittmeyer@tribweb.com or at (412) 306-4540.

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