Pittsburgh region relies heavily on part-time police officers

Brice Joll said his body got used to running on as little as four hours of sleep as he pieced together grueling double and triple shifts as a part-time officer with three police departments.

Joll, 26, graduated from the municipal police academy at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and worked for two years as a part-time officer in North Belle Vernon and Smithton in Westmoreland County and Liberty in Allegheny County.

He made $10 to $11.50 an hour, received no benefits or paid time off and had to spend more than $1,200 of his own money for equipment, including a handgun and ammunition, a gun belt, a bulletproof vest and other items. Orchestrating his schedule was tricky, but he rarely turned down a shift.

“I would pick up shifts left and right because I loved my job,” Joll said.

Because so many departments in the region depend so heavily on part-time officers, there were few opportunities for Joll to land a full-time job. So he moved to Jacksonville, N.C., where he’s attending the local police academy in hopes of finding a permanent post.

Western Pennsylvania municipalities rely on part-time police officers more than their counterparts across the state and the nation, statistics show. About 29 percent of officers in the nine-county region around Pittsburgh work part time, compared with about 20 percent statewide, according to the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

The region’s rate is more than five times the national rate, where about 5.4 percent of officers worked part time in 2008, the most recent year figures were available from the Department of Justice.

The use of part-time officers is among the more controversial issues in the profession, said Bill Kelly, president of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association and chief of the Abington Police Department in Montgomery County.

Tiny municipalities and those with tight budgets favor the less expensive way of plugging holes in department staffing, while police unions, including the Fraternal Order of Police, typically have opposed using part-timers in favor of more full-time positions.

“Most people would tell you, in a perfect world, there would be all full-time officers who are fully engaged in doing the work in their community. That’s the ideal,” Kelly said. “For economic reasons, especially in the smaller municipalities, they find they can save a lot of money by filling in with part-timers rather than having to hire another officer with benefits” and other costs, Kelly said.

Pennsylvania has more local police departments than any other state, according to the Department of Justice. In 2013, there were 1,295 municipal police departments, while 1,266 municipalities relied solely on the state police for coverage.
Municipalities statewide spent more than $2 billion on their police departments in 2012, state data showed.

State Sen. Jim Brewster, a Democrat and former mayor of McKeesport, said he was stunned at part-time wages — usually $9 to $11 an hour — paid by many departments in the region for a job as stressful and dangerous as being a police officer.

Just last month, part-time Perryopolis police officer Richard Champion, 35, of Ligonier was killed in a two-vehicle crash on Route 51 in Perry.

In December 2011, part-time East Washington officer John David Dryer, 46, of Claysville was fatally shot during a traffic stop on Interstate 70.

In April 2011, part-time Clairton officer James Kuzak Jr., 42, was shot five times while responding to a home invasion, paralyzing him from the waist down.

Patching together part-time jobs in multiple departments is usually a necessity for officers to earn a living. The low hourly pay can be a sticking point for officers and law enforcement advocates.

Brewster said he understands that relying on part-time officers is often a community’s only way of keeping a police force. Costs for wages, pensions and equipment continue to rise while older communities often face a shrinking tax base.

So Brewster wrote legislation to add a $10 fee to tickets for moving violations that would establish a pool of money municipalities could tap to help bring part-time officers’ pay up to $15 an hour. The proposal stalled in the Senate last session, but Brewster said he’s planning to reintroduce it this year.

“People work for a living and maybe instead of having to work in three communities, they can work in one or two … get known in the community, hopefully live there,” Brewster said.

“There’s a lot of stability that would come out of the bill.”

Managing a police department dependent on part-time officers isn’t easy, said Delmont Chief T.J. Klobucar. Part-time officers in Delmont routinely leave, not because they’re unhappy, but because they found full-time employment elsewhere, he said.

“It’s a big problem for me,” said Klobucar.

Four part-time officers left the department recently for full-time jobs elsewhere. There are now two full-time officers, including the chief, and eight part-timers, he said.

“I’m happy to see them go, move on with their careers and go full time,” Klobucar said.

“It’s tough on the community, and it’s tough on the department.”

Staff writer Renatta Signorini contributed to this report. Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.
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