“An absolute crisis”: Pittsburgh Police numbers dwindling as officers reach retirement eligibility

PITTSBURGH — Hundreds of Pittsburgh Police officers are eligible to retire today, and no new officers are in the pipeline to replace them.

On top of that, the city has seen a dramatic decline in the number of police applicants.

Every month, officers are retiring or resigning, and the city has not hired any new officers in two years.

The police union president says there may not be enough officers to do everything the city wants.

“There’s been no academy class. You have 264 people who could retire today. Is this a crisis?” asked Target 11 investigator Rick Earle.

“An absolute crisis. It’s terrifying as a citizen of the city myself. And just for people who want to visit the city for businesses that decide they want to settle here and have businesses here. Your police force is crumbling on the inside,” said Bob Swartzwelder, the police union president, who has been sounding the alarm for months now.

At the police union hall, Swartzwelder tracks the numbers on a wall.

24 officers have already retired or resigned this year.

264 officers are eligible to leave now, and no new officers have been hired in more than two years, due to a hiring freeze prompted by the “Defund the police” movement and exacerbated by the pandemic financial crisis.

“This is telling right here. You have nobody?” asked Earle, while looking at the board, on which no new recruits were listed.

“Correct,” said Swartzwelder.

“Nobody here ready to fill those people when they retire,” said Earle.

“Correct. At all,” replied Swartzwelder.

An internal report completed by an independent agency and obtained by Target 11 expressed serious concerns about manpower.

“There is concern regarding shift coverage and manpower. Officers are leaving and not being replaced,” said the report.

“You’re talking in some of these zones, you have five or six officers on duty on a shift. That’s it?” Earle asked.

“Correct,” said Swartzwelder.

“That’s frightening,” Earle responded.

“It’s horrifying,” said Swartzwelder.

And, with the recent uptick in crime, some zones are stretched to the max.

“Sometimes you can have a shift where there are five or six officers patrolling the zone, which makes it difficult,” said Earle, speaking with Scott Schubert, the Pittsburgh police chief.

“It does, it does, but I mean, that’s where we have to make sure we’re force multiplying by — we have other zones. We have other officers,” said Schubert.

“You’re  talking about helping out?” asked Earle.

“Yes, we have to help one another out,” said Schubert.

The department is budgeting for 900 officers, but it is now under that number. Under the previous administration, the number of officers was over 900.

City Council President Theresa Kail Smith said she does not want to see it go too low because critical programs may be in jeopardy.

“We also don’t want to see the numbers go so low that we’re not doing the complete community relationship-building that we have tried to — so many, for so many years — to do so much better,” said Smith.

“Are we facing a potential crisis?” Earle asked Schubert.

“Not right now, but you know, we got to focus on making sure we have enough people taking the test to become Pittsburgh police officers,” said Schubert.

And perhaps that issue may be an even bigger problem. The city has seen a dramatic decline in applicants, from more than 2,000 a decade ago to under 300 for each of the past two years.

“It’s actually probably been about, you know, between seven, eight years or more that we’ve seen a steady decline across the country in recruitment, but you see everything going on, and sometimes you see too much of what is perceived as public sentiment against the police,” said Schubert.

In an effort to attract more applicants, Schubert has redesigned the recruitment webpage, launched a mentoring program and plans to put “Join Pittsburgh Police” stickers on all police vehicles.

He has also talked with state leaders about legislation that would provide signing bonuses.

But Swartzwelder believes one of the first moves should be addressing the starting salary.

“It says 16.84 per hour,” said Earle.

“Correct — when they walk on the job so they make 16.84 per hour, and if you walk around McKnight Road, or any of those surrounding communities, at some of the restaurants and things like that, they’re paying more to start. You could probably walk in and get a job with them stocking a shelf with no aggravation other than (your) managers saying I need aisle 14 stocked, and they may be starting at 18, 19, 20 dollars an hour,” said Swartzwelder.

“Absolutely, absolutely, it’s way too low,” said Schubert.

In the meantime, as the numbers continue to decline with no relief in sight, Swartzwelder says the city may face some difficult decisions. He says the manpower may not be there for all of the events police cover.

“That means there’s no St. Patrick day parades. There’s no marathons. There’s no great races. There’s nobody policing Pirate games, Steeler games, Penguin games. The events on the Southside, the events in Lawrenceville. There’s nobody there. So now what do you do?” asked Swartzwelder.

There is money in the budget for a new academy class in 2022, and sources tell me that class should enter the academy later in the year. But it will take nearly two years for those new recruits to be ready to hit the streets.