New police plan calls for part-time officers

Bellevue Police officers will get the chance to weigh in on a department restructuring plan that, for the first time, would add part-time officers to the force.

The plan is being proposed by Chief Matt Sentner and Mayor Paul Cusick as a way to decrease operating costs, specifically those related to overtime pay. Additionally, the plan proposes creating two detective positions, with the officers selected to fill the positions available to fill in as patrol officers as needed.

The plan was presented to Bellevue Council several months ago, and has been under some discussion by council’s safety committee since then. Last month, council president Lynn Tennant Heffley announced that Officer James Dold would address council at the pre-council meeting held this past Tuesday. Dold was apparently unable to make the meeting due to vacation. Instead, Officer Michael Dunker spoke during the visitors’ portion of the meeting to ask that council meet with the officers to get their input on the restructuring plan. He said that no formal invitation had been relayed to the officers.

“We would like to have a voice in this discussion,” Dunker said.

Heffley said that she had spoken with Dold, and thought that he planned to attend the regular council meeting on June 27, and suggested that there may have been some miscommunication because it was not only intended, but planned, that the officers meet with council to discuss the plan.

The plan at issue would add three part-time officers to the department, which currently is manned by 12 officers plus the chief. At least two officers are currently on leave for injury, and the employment of a third officer was terminated by council earlier this year. That position is expected to be filled through the traditional civil service process.

Bellevue is one of the last hold-outs when it comes to the use of part-time officers. Locally, both Avalon and Ohio Township employ part-timers, primarily because of the cost savings. The officers generally are paid less than full-time officers – in the case of Bellevue, the police contract limits the pay of part-time officers to 70 percent of a full-time officer’s salary – and receive no benefits, while at the same time reducing the amount of increased overtime pay received by the full-time officers.

Many police chiefs whose departments employ part-timers recognize the need, but wish that they could have an entirely full-time staff. They note that turn-over is high, as part-timers work only until they obtain full-time positions, and their commitments to other departments create a constant schedule juggling act.

Bellevue’s plan is being presented not only as a way of cutting costs, but also increasing services. It proposes using two current full-time officers as detectives, one to handle criminal investigations, and the other to focus on narcotics trafficking and other vice-related matters. When necessary, the detectives will return to their positions as patrol officers to cover schedules during absences due to vacation or illness.

At one time, during the 1980s, when Bellevue’s property and violent crime rates ranked among the highest in Allegheny County, the borough received a grant that paid for two officers to work as plainclothes detectives, focusing on felony investigations.

According to the proposed restructuring plan, the detectives would be selected from among the current full-time officers, and would not receive any additional pay. The part-time officers would be hired by a panel including the police chief and director of administrative services, rather than go through the civil service process that involves competitive testing. The part-time officers would have to pass all training and certifications required of full-time officers.