The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

Local News

March 26, 2014

Police study released, fight for jobs begins

Focus on Farrell, not on finances

SHENANGO VALLEY — The study of operations at Southwest Mercer County Regional Police Commission has been publicly released and members of the department are ready to fight for their jobs.

While some members found the study to be unfair, incomplete and even a waste of time, they agreed that it backs up what they have been saying for a long time.

“The study is in our favor,” said Sgt. Andrew Thomas. “The budget needs to be increased, not decreased. The staffing needs to be increased, not decreased.”

The study comes at a time when there have been questions by the 30-member department’s two largest members, Farrell and Shenango Township, as to whether they should remain in the force.

However, the study by International City/County Management Association does not examine financial issues and focuses on Farrell, which commissioned it at the behest of the state as part of the city’s economic recovery plan.

The study lists a “specific goal” as determining “the quantity and quality of police service being delivered within the confines of the city of Farrell relative to the services being delivered to the various other communities served by the department.”

ICMA evaluated Southwest’s policies and procedures, office, calls, command structure, scheduling, personnel duties and many other aspects.

The department “is staffed by competent professionals who, it is apparent, wish to deliver a high level of police services,” the report said.

However, the department “suffers from a number of organizational and administrative problems that severely limit its capacity to monitor operations and thus maximize organizational efficiency and effectiveness.”

The report recommends upgrading the station; buying an array of equipment; holding more formal meetings among the command staff and with the city manager; conducting more data analysis to determine, among other things, “the relative amount of time and resources that are being expended ... in each of the four communities”; boosting training; and improving personnel evaluations.

Chief Riley Smoot Jr. said it’s always good to be evaluated, but he and other officers contended there is nothing new in the report.

“It concerned issues that we continually deal with,” he said.

For example, Smoot has previously said the department needs a website and its front office is not properly secure, both study points. The department is already reviewing its policies and procedures in order to update them, and has adjusted its shift rotation to ease the transition, both recommendations in the document.

The report is critical of some of the department’s fundamental ways of operating, such as patrolmen and officers not reporting themselves out of service when they are writing reports or eating. The idea, department members said, is to make as many policemen available to respond to calls as possible.

“That’s just the way we do business,” Sgt. William Hite said.

Policemen were perplexed at the contention that they respond to too many calls. The report said the department should reduce responses to nonemergency calls such as car crashes where only property damage has occurred; false alarms that are not verified; and medical calls.

Not responding to many of these types of calls would free up time for police to “address other conditions present in the community,” such as traffic enforcement in areas with high crash counts, the study said.

Hite defended the response policy.

“We don’t see it as a waste of time,” he said. “It’s a citizen contact and it usually results in a positive contact.”

Thomas added that, while the report claims that 98 percent of alarm calls are false due to operator error, “How do you know which 2 percent are good?”

Although the report faults the department for not having a formal community oriented policing program, Hite said responding to all calls is a form of community policing.

Supervisors “triage” calls to determine if a response is necessary, he said, and skip medical calls when the men are busy and don’t go to 911 hangups when dispatchers can’t provide a specific location.

In terms of community policing, the department participates with Sharon police in a Citizen’s Academy, meets with block watch groups and participates in community events, and Smoot regularly meets with community groups. To do more would take more manpower, he said.

ICMA concluded Southwest is “overstaffed” when it comes to handling calls for service. The department, by contract, has four patrolman on duty at all times. The report claims the staffing could be reduced to three during times of lesser calls.

“There is no peak time,” Hite said, with officials noting that any kind of call could come in at any time.

“Our guys keep busy,” Thomas said.

Having four men out reduces calls to other departments for assists, Smoot said. Why is that important? Fifteen years ago, Sharon police got tired of responding to Southwest calls and said it was not responsible for providing backup, he said.

The recommendation does not take into account that there is a land separation between communities, which hampers response time – an issue that the report compliments the department for.

Reducing the patrol staff reduces citizen contacts and opportunities for community policing, Hite said.

“You have no use but to become reactive,” Smoot said of a three-man shift.

Such thinking also undervalues patrolling, Hite said.

“It’s crime suppression,” he said.

The study complimented Smoot for performing a “wide range of tasks and duties,” and then criticized him for doing them, many of which were “routine clerical duties.”

The study was critical of the department’s evidence and property storage room and how things were catalogued and stored, but Hite responded: “It has never been called into question in court.”

“We don’t lose evidence,” Thomas said.

ICMA was harsh on the detective unit, saying it had “substandard” office space, lack of a case management system and little oversight.

Thomas, a detective, acknowledged the department does not have case-tracking software, but said the detectives track cases the old-fashioned way.

“We track our own cases,” he said.

He contradicted the report’s claim that the detective unit only investigates homicides, shootings and sexual assaults.

“If it needs followed up on, we’ll do what we can,” he said.

The report claims the department’s 2012 clearance rates for major crimes “lag somewhat behind the national clearance average,” while Thomas interpreted the data as “comparable.”

Those lags are 6 percent for rape cases, 3 percent for robbery, 2 percent for aggravated assaults, one-half percent for robberies and 9 percent for larcenies. The department’s 100 percent clearance rate for murders exceeded the national average of 71è percent.

Smoot said he would like Southwest to become the department that the study envisions it could be, but that can’t be done without money. The report recommends hiring another staff person to help with clerical duties and data analysis, sending staffers to more training session, promoting two more officers so a supervisor would work every shift, buying a host of equipment for field and office use and renovating, at least, parts of the police station.

“We don’t have the money to do what they want,” Thomas said.

As a taxpayer and resident of Farrell, Smoot said he understands the desire for a cost-effective and efficient department. But, he hates that each year is a struggle to keep the doors open. He asked decision-makers not just to look at what they are paying.

“It’s about, when the officers respond, are they professional?” Smoot said. “Do they do the job well? Are they doing what they are supposed to do? When they leave, do you feel safer? If we fall short, give us the opportunity to correct these actions.”

Although Southwest has trouble with turnover – “ICM notes that the department’s current pay levels appear quite low in comparison to national averages” – it also has many long-term policemen.

“We love this job,” Smoot said. “There’s something about this area that made us stay here. Nobody stays here for the money.”

Thomas said he does not want to work for another department because no department gives him the range of experiences as he gets at Southwest.

“They run from an inner-city experience to running cows off the road,” he said. “We get the full gamut of police experience.”

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