Penn Hills and Rankin: different towns, different takes on police consolidation

Ryan Wooten, Chief of Rankin's police department, left, and Lt. Joseph Snyder of the Penn Hills police department. (Michael M. Santiago/Post-Gazette)

Penn Hills’ well-funded police department and Rankin’s threadbare force have very different takes on police consolidation.

Penn Hills police Chief Howard Burton scanned his ID badge in the department’s $12 million building, and a set of doors slid open with a click.

He walked from room to room on a gray mid-October day, greeting some of his officers and pointing out the building’s various features: the detectives’ division, climate-controlled evidence storage, metal and concrete holding cells and a 25-yard indoor firing range.

From the freshly painted walls to the sparkling floors, everything smelled new — Penn Hills police had been in the municipality’s new headquarters, which they share with other branches of government, for only a few weeks. It’s state-of-the art, brightly lit and designed to be secure.

Chief Burton thinks many police departments in the county need to consolidate and join forces — but he’s not keen to move out of his spiffy new headquarters.

“I don’t think we’d give it up,” he said. “But honestly we’d be one of the bigger [departments] that probably wouldn’t be touched as far as consolidation.”

Penn Hills Police Chief Howard Burton talks with an agent from the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

It’s been decades since anyone discussed consolidating with Penn Hills, Chief Burton said — the last instance he remembered was a discussion with Verona perhaps 20 years ago — and no such discussions are ongoing. Back then, Verona “didn’t want Penn Hills police coming down and arresting their people,” Chief Burton said.

Penn Hills police aren’t against extending their coverage if other departments want to join them, Chief Burton said, but he’d need more funding and staffing.

“We couldn’t just absorb them without increasing staffing,” he said, adding that local leaders would need to get together and figure out who’d give up what to whom. Most of the departments immediately around Penn Hills — Wilkins, Monroeville, Plum — have sufficient budgets and staffing and may not need consolidation, Chief Burton said.

Local officials have been discussing regionalization for decades. In the ‘70s, when Chief Burton was new on the job, no one wanted to consolidate.

“At that point in time I could see why,” he said. “The steel mills were still running, communities were self-sufficient. But due to the changing economy, these small towns and communities just can’t afford to run a police department.”

That reality drives the stark differences in policing resources between municipalities — sometimes even between neighboring towns.

Penn Hills officers make significantly more money than those in neighboring Verona, which has a force of nine, three full-timers and six part-timers. Part-timers there start at $13.50 an hour, while the chief earns about $58,000 — less than a first-year officer in Penn Hills, who starts at $68,000. Penn Hills police are some of the best paid in the county.

Penn Hills has around 19 marked patrol cars and 53 officers, including 11 detectives, to handle policing for the 42,000 people in Penn Hill’s 20 square miles. Officers responded to nearly 23,000 calls in 2017, according to Allegheny County 911. Penn Hills police handle their own investigations, except homicides, which they pass to the Allegheny County Police Department.

Agents from the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office train in the Penn Hills police department’s shooting range. The indoor range includes dimmable lights and is part of a $12 million state-of-the art facility. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Giving a tour of the new facility, Chief Burton paused inside the building’s firing range, where officers can train with rifles and pistols. He adjusted a switch, and the lights dimmed to simulate dawn or dusk because officers aren’t always firing in the full light of day.

The facility is a huge step up from their old building — now a dungeon-like place which itself was state-of-the art when Chief Burton started on the force in 1969.

“We’ve always been equipped with technology and equipment,” he said. “And it’s stayed that way, as you see here. It costs a lot more now than it did. That’s always a challenge in every department — to try to meet the needs.”

It costs about $6,000 to put an officer on the street, he said — and that’s just for equipment and the uniform. Cash-strapped towns that turn to part-time officers lose a level of professionalism, Chief Burton said.

Penn Hills Police officers and paramedics respond to a call about an emotionally disturbed person. (Michael M. Santiago/Post-Gazette)

“It’s not [the officers’] fault, they’re looking for a job, they’re working, trying to survive, they want to be police officers, and that’s the best they can do right now,” he said. “You can’t blame them. And for the community, you get some part-time officers, you pay them a little bit of money, and OK, you’ve got a police department! Well, you have a policeman in name. I’m not faulting these guys or these communities, but we’ve got to step back and take a look at it and see what we can do here.”

Penn Hills Lt. Joe Snyder started his career as one of those part-time officers, working 32 hours a week for $7 an hour in Braddock in 2000 (starting pay in Braddock now is $11.80 an hour). There were three other officers on his shift. Two had started two weeks before him; the other was the shift lieutenant.

“That was my first police job,” he said. “You don’t know anything. And the guys who have been there two weeks aren’t going to teach you anything.”

Once, one of Braddock’s two patrol cars broke down and the department had to rent a generic replacement cruiser.

“It just said, ‘Police,’ on it,” Lt. Snyder remembered with a laugh. “I knew Braddock was not my career.”

Lt. Snyder, like Chief Burton, believes consolidation of police forces is needed in the county. Small departments with part-timers just don’t have what they need for training and equipment, he said, and it’s not fair to citizens or police officers. But he’s not sure whether a single countywide force should take over or several regional departments.

It’s up to citizens to make those decisions, he said.

“Society rules how police work,” he said. “We have to adapt to what society wants.”

Shelly Bradbury: 412-263-1999, sbradbury@post-gazette.com or follow @ShellyBradbury on Twitter.

Rankin

Ryan Wooten, Rankin's chief of police, stands in front of the borough police department building. (Michael M. Santiago/Post-Gazette)

The front door to Rankin’s tiny police station was wide open, as it often is, despite the presence of a just-arrested man within. Roughly between the door and the holding cell sat Chief Ryan Wooten, deep in conversation with the 25-year-old suspect.

“I ran around these same streets you’ve been running around,” said Chief Wooten, 51, who grew up in North Braddock and knew the suspect’s family. Then the young man talked about his life since a September 2017 release from jail — a year of sleeping on couches, falling out with family, losing his girlfriend, drifting back into street life, contemplating suicide.

The chief responded with stories from his lowest times, and talked up the human talent for revival. “You’ve got to get knocked down before you can get back up,” he said.

In a knocked-down steel town of roughly a half square mile and 2,100 residents, with a chief who was raised one town over and has run his department for 13 years, chief-to-suspect heart-to-hearts happen. If there’s an argument for hyper-local policing, this is it.

Rankin’s U.S. Steel plant in 1980. (Post-Gazette Archives)

But if there’s an argument for consolidation of police departments, that can also be found here. Chief Wooten has just a dozen officers, all part-timers and among the most modestly compensated in the county, with some making less than $10 an hour. (He earns $51,623, the lowest among chiefs who disclosed their salaries.) His departmental budget amounts to around $177 per borough resident, which makes his among the county’s leanest departments.

“I’m absolutely for [consolidation]. I think that we have to put all of our resources together to have a better product,” Chief Wooten said, in a December interview, more than three months after the conversation with the young man.

His cramped headquarters is within 10 minutes drive of six other police stations. A merger of departments in Rankin, Braddock, North Braddock, East Pittsburgh and Whitaker could allow for more full-time officers, and that would in turn create more opportunities to assign officers to state and federal task forces to root out drugs and violent groups, he said. That’s hard to do when officers have to work part-time for multiple departments.

Rankin was, as recently as 2013, one of the most crime-plagued places in Pennsylvania, with one violent crime per 100 residents. Since then, though, violence in Rankin has declined steadily, to the point that in 2017, the borough was closer to the middle of Pennsylvania’s municipal pack, with one violent crime per 400 residents. The chief credits good police-community relations and a focus on prevention.

Chief Wooten “understands certain situations, that not everything is black and white, and not everybody has to go to jail,” said Lee Davis, a businessman and life coach with the University of Pittsburgh’s Violence Prevention Initiative. Friends since childhood, they call each other “Feets” and “Woot.”

“Woot will call me all times of the day or night to just come talk to [a troubled] kid.” Mr. Davis said.

Nonetheless, one violent incident, two boroughs away, threatened police-community relations in Rankin as throughout the region, and catalyzed the debate over the value of small-town policing. June’s fatal shooting of Rankin 17-year-old Antwon Rose II by an East Pittsburgh officer led to the revelation that some small departments lack modern policy manuals that would govern things like the use of deadly force.

A candlelight vigil for Antwon Rose II was one of many protests marking the teen’s death. An East Pittsburgh borough police officer fatally shot the unarmed 17-year-old in the back as he and a gunman fled from a car after a drive-by shooting. (Harrison Jones/Post-Gazette)

“We have a policy for anything,” said Chief Wooten, pointing to a binder. But does he have the luxury of sending officers for specialized training in subjects, like the proper handling of mental health crises? “Any extensive training? No.”

Instead, officers get personalized instruction from the chief.

Example: Domestic incidents are some of the most volatile calls that officers face, and if a white officer walks into a black household in turmoil, the chance of a misunderstanding is heightened. Chief Wooten tries to teach officers to defuse situations by making a human connection, through something as simple as noting the smell wafting from the family’s kitchen. “’Hey, man, is that chitlins you’re cooking?’ That changes the whole dynamic,” said the chief.

Exacerbating the lack of formal training, turnover is a constant. Half of Chief Wooten’s force has been with him for more than five years, but the other half is a revolving door.

“We don’t have enough money for cars,” Chief Wooten said, pointing to two relatively new vehicles and two clunkers. “We don’t have enough money for equipment. We don’t have enough money for police officers.”

Mayor M. Nicholas Glova said the borough is hoping that eventual redevelopment of the county-owned Carrie Furnace mill site, most of which is in Rankin, will bring in “taxes so we can pay our police, and they’ll stay.”

As sheriff’s deputies arrived to take the 25-year-old to jail, Chief Wooten shouted out to the handcuffed man, inviting him to swing by for another conversation when he got out. The young man said he would.

“We’re not doing anything special,” the chief said of his tiny department. “We just care.”

Members of the Rankin Police Department, including, from left, Chief Wooten, Sgt. Clarence Gunter Jr. and Officer Yvonne Battiste, preparing Christmas gifts to be delivered last year. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542


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