The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

March 27, 2014

‘How do we get there?’ Leaders fret costs in study

By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer

SOUTHWESTERN MERCER COUNTY — While the study of Southwest Mercer County Regional Police Department was about operations and not finances, local government, at its most basic, is about the spending of tax money to provide city services.

Having read the report, Farrell Councilman Robert Burich called it “good,” and that there were things in it he liked and others he “wasn’t crazy about.”

But, his question for Dr. Paul E. O’Connell, who gave an overview of the report Wednesday, got back to the issue of money.

“How do we get around it?” he said.

“Some of this stuff has to be implemented,” said Burich, a member of the police commission. “The four communities, unfortunately, don’t have the money. What do we do?”

O’Connell acknowledged there are recommendations that will cost money, most notably for training, equipment and station improvements.

But, he added, the report only recommends adding one staff person: a non-uniformed staff member to analyze data and assume other administrative duties.

The recommendations concerning having a primary training officer, a professional standards officer and two community service officers could be accomplished with present staff, O’Connell said.

“We think you can get the job done,” he said.

West Middlesex Mayor David George said there was “no way” the recommendations could be implemented.

He also praised the existing force, calling it “the best.”

Commission Chairman Thomas R. Tulip, executive director of Mercer County Regional Council of Governments, called the recommendations “very interesting” and pledged to “look at them very closely.”

He argued that the recommendation that the department could get by with a minimum of three patrolman a shift – the department currently has a minimum of four under the police contract – is not feasible when you have an area as big as Shenango Township as part of the coverage area.

O’Connell responded that the reduction from a “hard four” minimum patrol staff to a hard three was a “strong recommendation.”

“Geography was a real critical issue,” he said. “We think it’s possible.”

As Tulip went on, Farrell City Manager Michael Ceci cut him off, saying Tulip was not asking a question about the report but had moved into implementation, which he said is a matter for the commission.

They went back and forth before Tulip sat down.

While council had set ground rules that the meeting would accept only comments from council and members of the police commission, Mayor Olive McKeithan allowed city Treasurer Melissa Kucik-Cannone to speak.

She noted that she lives in an area of the city that has had numerous incidents of gunfire recently.

“I would like to commend every one of those officers back there,” she said, referring to the at least dozen policemen who occupied the back wall and rear seats in council chambers. “I don’t want any of the officers cut in patrol,” she said.

Ceci said that policemen who see the study as a precursor to cutting the size of the force or a community pulling out don’t understand why the study was done.

“It’s about the 5,000 residents of the city of Farrell,” he said. “It wasn’t about determining who wins and who loses.”

“This will always be up to the commission to make decisions,” he said later. “This is another tool. You’re the elected body, you’re the representatives. This has not been a witch hunt by the city manager of the city of Farrell against any member of the police department.”

Councilwoman Annette Morrison said the study gave her “a helpful insight on what we’re doing, how we’re doing and how we can make it better.”

She said she sees some things “we definitely need to change,” but also better understands what the cops on the beat go through.

“I’m going to use this as a guideline as to what we need to do here in this community.” Morrison said.

Recommendations seek to improve good force

“The members of this police department do a good job,” said Dr. Paul E. O’Connell, the team leader of a study of the Southwest Mercer County Regional Police Department.

“They’re doing a noble profession and they’re doing it well,” he said Wednesday in presenting the report to Farrell council.

The study by the International City/County Management Association, Washington, was commissioned by the city under its status as a financially distressed community.

The report says that it is about helping the department improve “organizational and administrative problems that severely limit its capacity to monitor operations and this maximize organizational efficiency and effectiveness.”

While the report is filled with recommendations, some of the recommendations are “must haves” but many are “nice to haves,” said O’Connell, ICMA senior public safety consultant and a former New York City cop who is a professor of criminal justice at Iona College, New Rochelle, N.Y., who has written books on police training.

Among the highlights of the presentation, O’Connell said the department should:

• Have a corporal or sergeant on patrol duty for every shift, and have him “float” between the communities where he is most needed.

• Perform an audit of the property/evidence room, which could be done internally or by hiring someone.

• Create a strategic plan that sets goals and how they will be accomplished, and annual reports that detail progress on the plan.

• Formalize command staff meetings with clear agendas and the taking of minutes to discuss specific topics.

• Record and track performance information on key areas, such as overtime and arrests. The Mercer County 911 center has the capability to provide data to meet this end, O’Connell said.

“The personnel here have a keen understanding of what’s going on in the communities,” he said. “The problem is they’re not documenting it. They’re not taking enough credit for it.”

• Increase training, formalize a training plan and name a primary training officer to look for “teachable moments” in which training could be geared to things the police are experiencing in the field.

“Training is not a luxury,” O’Connell said. “Training is a necessity for police officers. These officers are getting training. They need more.”

While training generally costs money, there usually are local resources, such as colleges, that can be tapped, for low-cost or even free training sessions, he said.

“Officers should not go a year without any (training),” O’Connell said.