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Teams, local businesses may need alternatives to off-duty Pittsburgh police in September

Friday, August 15, 2003

By Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

On any given day, up to 50 uniformed Pittsburgh police officers perform off-duty work throughout the city, providing security outside bars and nightclubs and directing traffic at street corners.

But with Wednesday's police union vote to suspend all moonlighting for September as a show of solidarity in light of the city's budget crisis, businesses and organizations have been put on short notice to find alternatives.

Two of the most high-profile employers of off-duty officers, the Pirates and the Steelers, appeared unflappable in digesting the union news.

"We certainly do hope that the city and police are able to work this out prior to September. In the interim we are looking at alternatives. I don't know what those are at this time," Patty Paytas, the Pirates spokeswoman, said yesterday.

For each home game, the Pirates use a combination of 18 on-duty officers and eight to 12 off-duty officers to direct traffic. Another eight off-duty officers handle crowd control inside PNC Park.

Ron Wahl, the Steelers spokesman, acknowledged that the team uses off-duty officers inside Heinz Field for crowd control and outside for handling traffic, but he would not say whether the Steelers would try to replace them with other people.

"We handle security at Steelers games, so everything will be normal," Wahl said. "Traffic is the responsibility of the city. We urge our fans to arrive early."

Wahl wondered aloud if the Steelers could hire police officers from other municipalities.

The answer: Not unless they have special state certification and want to work without wearing their uniforms, according to the Fraternal Order of Police.

"Everything will be handled," Wahl said. "September is still a few weeks away."

Allegheny County Sheriff Pete DeFazio said his deputies won't be able to "pick up the slack because we're short-handed ourselves."

And Jim Hasara, president of the Allegheny County Police Association, said county police, on principal, would not try to moonlight in place of city officers even if they could.

It remains to be seen whether police officers abide by the vote against moonlighting for the month of September. Although it is against union rules to go against a vote and work, there are no penalties for officers who continue to moonlight. Some officers yesterday indicated that off-duty work was too good to pass up and they planned to carry on as normal in September.

The vote was cast toward the end of a packed union meeting to discuss a proposal to save the jobs of 102 officers slated to be laid off Aug. 29.

More than 400 officers attended the meeting, the union said, and at least 300 were reportedly still there when the voice vote was cast on a motion proposed by Officer Gene Hlavac of the East Liberty station.

That means that the majority of the 1,000-strong force did not attend the 7 p.m. meeting, including some of the officers who moonlight but are on duty at night.

Police union President Eugene Grattan explained that while regular union meetings are often held at different times to accommodate officers on all shifts, the same does not hold true for special meetings such as the one Wednesday. According to the union, on-duty officers are not permitted to leave work to attend union meetings, meaning they could not have attended had they wanted to.

"If guys could have taken off, they would have," Grattan said. "We're not punishing them. People put a motion on the floor, it's voted on and that's how it is. If it was that important, they would have been there."

In temporarily eliminating off-duty work for the 200 to 300 officers who are eligible, Grattan said the union is trying to promote solidarity in a time of crisis. As well, he said, it will become apparent to the public that the police bureau is understaffed, as the union has contended.

As an example, Grattan said the officers who work weekend "details," or off-duty assignments, on the South Side's busy Carson Street provide a visible deterrent to crime. Even though they are not responding to 911 calls, if there is a crime on the street, the officers are obligated to get involved.

Taking away the 10 to 15 officers moonlighting on Carson Street on a Saturday night leaves the seven to nine officers normally on patrol on the South Side at that time without the added manpower. Bar and nightclub personnel are already taking notice.

"The owners are starting to call certain guys [who moonlight]," Grattan said. "Now they know it's a public safety issue. ... The owners of these places are going to start telling the mayor we need more police."

Hlavac, who said he impulsively proposed cutting back voluntary overtime, said opting out of moonlighting was better than calling off sick en masse or participating in a work slowdown.

"It's a matter of union solidarity. It's a matter of showing the public that we're sticking together. And it's a matter of showing the mayor we're sticking together," Hlavac said.

He added that certain off-duty assignments might be exempt from the moonlighting ban.

"Lots of officers expressed last night that it might be wise that the neighborhood details, some of the bars, some of the things that directly affect public safety, some of the grocery stores, might still go on," Hlavac said. "We're not doing this to hurt the public safety."

Police Chief Robert W. McNeilly said groups that normally hire off-duty officers will instead hire security guards. Whether they will be effective, the chief said, remains to be seen.

"I can understand the officers wanting to feel united on some front. I guess this is just the route they chose," McNeilly said. "None of the officers working details answer police calls for service, so that won't impact calls for service."

Grattan said the motion to stop moonlighting was passed unanimously. At least one officer, however, who attended the meeting but was not present for the vote disagreed with the decision.

"Canceling off-duty details was an impulsive move. It impacts backup for on-duty cops, public safety, officer income and FOP credibility," said Officer Chuck Bosetti of the Hill District station. "All unions strive for a unified image, but pay details were not on Wednesday's agenda, so most cops had no input."


Staff writer Lillian Thomas contributed to this report. Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962.

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