March 3, 2009 |

Police commander explains the realities of staffing Zone 3

The coverage area for the Zone 3 police station was significantly reduced on Jan. 1 when the large neighborhoods of Banksville, Brookline and Beechview were taken over by Zone 6 which patrols the city's western neighborhoods.

However, this does not mean staffing challenges do not exist for the police to adequately cover a geographic area that is still among the largest public safety zones in terms of square miles. Zone 3, before Banksville, Beechview and Brookline were shifted to Zone 6, consisted of 660 miles of roads to cover in the district. Eliminating these three large neighborhoods reduces that number by about one third.

Zone 3 Commander Catherine McNeilly gave a power-point presentation at the South Side Community Council meeting at the Brashear Center on Sarah Street where she explained there are a myriad of reasons why each shift may have a shortage of personnel.

"The good news was that we only lost six officers," Ms. McNeilly said. "It has allowed us so far to make changes in the way we do the policing. We can now take a step back and breathe."

Although the police are not as over-burdened in Zone 3 as they were the previous five years following the 2003 city layoffs of about 200 police city-wide, this does not mean it is smooth-sailing.

Commander McNeilly showed that the 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift for officers can have as many as five units (police cars) patrolling the streets, eight regular officers and 5-6 special detail police working on the streets at the same time. There may also be another half-dozen or so administrative and support staff on duty at the Zone 3 building. The headquarters is currently located on the South Side Flats, but soon to be moving to the corner of Arlington-Warrington avenues in Allentown.

There is also the overlapping 3-11 p.m. and 4 p.m.-midnight shifts where for seven hours of this nine-hour period, as many as 20 police officers may be on the streets.

The commander said she is constantly asked by the public about the current number of police on duty at any given period, but said she cannot accurately answer that question because there are too many variables that prevent most shifts from being fully staffed.

Each patrolman gets 10 personal days off from work per year, 10 paid holidays as well as 10 paid vacation days for newer officers and as many as 25 vacation days per year for officers who have an undisclosed number of years of service.

In addition to these paid days off for each officer, there are many work-related reasons why a policeman may not be available to patrol the streets on a given day.

There are court appearances that officers must make after serving an arrest in a case. Court appearances may obligate an officer to appear before a judge for an entire day, or at the

very least, a few hours of the officer's shift.

"Sometimes, four or five officers may be involved in the same arrest and every one of them may have to appear in court," Ms. McNeilly said.

Officers also get injured on the job which can cause them to be off from work for several days, weeks or months.

The police are also away from their duties because of state-mandated training classes they must attend each year. There is also voluntary training that some officers receive.

The commander said her staff may also be pulled from their regular duties to work special events such as the Super Bowl celebration parade that took place last month or the Pitt-Connecticut college basketball game that will take place March 7 on the Pitt campus. She noted that one of the Zone 3 patrol cars and some officers will be needed when that event takes place this Saturday at noon.

"It's a draw on our manpower and there isn't anything we can do about it," the Ms. McNeilly said.

The commander also discussed other topics with the group of residents at the South Side Community Council meeting, explaining the difference between 911 and 311.

A 911 emergency call is to be placed when a citizen wants to report a criminal act in progress.

"There is no need to give your name when placing this type of call," Ms. McNeilly said. "You can make it clear to the call-taker that you want to remain anonymous."

Calls should be placed to 311 for complaints that are not time-sensitive. For example, this service is used for calling to have an abandoned car removed or to complain about a vacant lot that is over-run by weeds and debris.

There was some discussion about the way the Zone 3 police handled the crowd that emptied out of the South Side bars following the Steelers' thrilling Super Bowl victory Feb. 1. Most in the audience said the police did a better job controlling the celebrating (mostly young) crowd last month than was done when the Steelers won their other recent Super Bowl in January, 2006.

There were 100 arrests city-wide from the fan celebration, about 30 in the South Side. The most violent activity from the Super Bowl fanatics occurred in Oakland, mostly because of the students living on the Pitt campus.

The state and county police provided the city with about 12 mounted horse patrols. There were also police dressed in riot gear. One resident said he didn't think this show of force was necessary and this more intimidating presence may lead to more of a negative reaction from the crowd who may feel more threatened by their presence. On the other hand, some residents welcomed the beefed-up patrols.

SSCC President Joe Bielecki encouraged the residents to ask questions, but warned that this was not a "moan and groan" session about any personal issues with the police.

One couple asked the commander about a problem they have had with a shop-lifter at their business. The commander politely declined to get into a detailed explanation about the matter, but said she would be willing to discuss it in a more private setting after the meeting.

Other residents at the meeting said they sympathized with the problem the businesswoman is dealing with, but this meeting was not the time or place to bring this up in a public forum.

Ms. McNeilly also said she recognized the apprehension by many South Siders about the police station moving to Allentown, but she assured the residents that the police will continue to patrol their neighborhood with the same commitment once the move is made.

One resident wanted to know why the police station had to move and the commander explained that the current building has been declared a hazard to the health and safety of the officers. There are problems with very high levels of mold, asbestos and lead (from when a firing-range existed in the basement more than 30 years ago).

When the new station opens, she believes the morale of the staff will improve which will be a plus for the community.

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