Cops say no to part-timers

The Bellevue Police Department made it abundantly clear to Bellevue Council Tuesday evening that its officers are opposed to any restructuring plan that would add part-time officers to the roster.

The officers were invited to provide input on a plan prepared by Police Chief Matt Sentner and Mayor Paul Cusick in response to council's concerns about soaring police overtime costs. It proposed adding three part-time officers, as well as creating two plainclothes investigative positions that could be made possible by the increased manpower. The detectives would return to their regular positions as patrol officers when needed.

Four officers - James Dold, Michael Dunker, Don Mason and Matt Lucas - attended the special meeting of council on Tuesday, held specifically to get their input on the restructuring plan. The officers maintained that the answer to the problem of increasing overtime costs was hiring more full-time officers, not part-timers.

Dold, who said he has served as president of the Bellevue Police Association for six years, said that council has failed to replace two full-time officers lost by the department. One officer is on permanent disability, while another's employment was terminated by council earlier this year. In addition, yet another officer is eligible to retire this fall, Dold said, and one officer spends nine months as the school resource officer for Northgate.

Although part-time officers appear on the surface to provide a cost savings - because they are paid at only 70 percent of a full-time officer's salary and do not receive benefits - Dold said that the savings dwindles when the reality of hiring part-timers is considered. The officers must be outfitted at borough expense, he said, as well as undergo a three-month, on-the-job training program with a full-time officer before they could be allowed to work on their own.

Where the costs add up, the officers told council, is that there is a very high rate of turn-over among part-time officers, whose primary goal is to get a full-time job.

In comparison, Dold said, a newly-hired full-time officer starts at the same 70 percent pay rate, but it takes five years before the officer reaches the full salary.

Dold also said that Bellevue Police officers do not want all the overtime work they currently must handle.

“We're working the shifts that are short. We're tired,” he said. Officers are being scheduled for 12 hours of overtime - at time and a half pay - each week, he said.

The officers also pointed out less economically-related disadvantages to hiring part-time officers. The officers often work for two or three different municipalities, Dold said, but have no commitment to any of them. Job decisions can be affected, he said, as a part-time officer sees an arrest as a way to get more hours, or avoids one because he needs to get to his next job.

Dold said that there are three types of part-time officers: Those doing the job for fun because they are independently wealthy (not likely), retired officers who are just picking up some extra income, and officers that can't get a full-time job anywhere. Dunker said that he worked part0time police jobs for two years before he was hired by Bellevue, and that his goal the entire time was to get the full-time job.

The full-time officers now employed by the Bellevue Police Department, according to Dold, are committed to working in the town until they retire. They are committed to making Bellevue safe, he said.

“We want this to be a place where folks can walk up and down the streets,” he said.

Dunker said that Bellevue is actually slightly below average in Allegheny County when it comes to how much of the borough's budget is spent on police services. While the county average is 25 percent, Dunker said, Bellevue spends 22 percent of its budget on police.

Council members had some questions for the officers. Linda Woshner asked why, if part-time officers were so bad, so many other departments employed them. She did not get a response to that question. She also asked the officers for suggestions on controlling costs, and was told that proper staffing and consolidation of services with other municipalities might help. Ultimately, however, the officers said that Bellevue officials needed to decide what they were willing to pay for a trained and professional police force.

Council member Tom Hrynda said that he had spoken with police officers from different departments, including the State Police, and all recommended not hiring part-time officers.

One resident, Paul Miller of Grant Avenue, spoke at the meeting. He suggested that Bellevue eliminate other jobs - such as one of the paid firefighters or the public works supervisor - rather than understaff its police department or hire part-time officers.

The matter will be discussed by council's public safety committee before a decision, if any, is made by all of council.