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Growing pains plaguing police

City finds inexperience of numerous new hires led to problems in '90s

Sunday, June 27, 1999

By Michael A. Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Some thought long and hard. Others didn't have to think about it at all.

The first of more than 1,100 people who took the civil service exam hoping to become police officers walk up a ramp yesterday at the David L.Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette) 

Each arrived at his decision, 410 of the 453 Pittsburgh police officers eligible for an early retirement incentive in the mid-1990s took the offer. During that period, primarily 1994 and 1995, another 136 officers retired on disability or on a regular pension.

To replace those 546 officers -- half the force and representing more than 12,000 years of experience -- the bureau undertook a massive hiring program, resulting in the youngest and least experienced department in anyone's memory.

To city officials, the situation was seen as a glass half full: While the experience void could not be filled, they saw an opportunity to reinvent the bureau.

At least that was the hope.

As it turned out, the new officers' inexperience led to numerous errors in judgment and performance. While mistakes by inexperienced officers are to be expected, they normally are mitigated by the guidance of veteran officers. But with so few of them left on the Pittsburgh force after the retirement exodus, that didn't happen and problems festered.

More than half of the 25 officers who have been fired since 1996 have been from those classes. Moreover, while most of the veteran officers were fired for long-standing, noncriminal problems such as alcoholism, most of the younger officers were terminated after being arrested on criminal charges that included insurance fraud, drug selling, prostitution, sexual assault and even homicide.

Among those fired were:

?Jeffrey L. Cooperstein, 43, who is awaiting trial on a homicide charge in the fatal shooting of Deron S. Grimmitt Sr., 32, of the Hill District during a police chase Dec. 21.

?Rhonda Burns, 29, who was convicted in April on a prostitution charge.

?John Angotti, 29, who was convicted in March of molesting a 16-year-old girl he found swimming after hours in a city pool.

Jose Alvarez-Aviles, 33, who was fired in 1997 for faxing to police stations a fake memo under city Police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr.'s signature, saying the chief was resigning. At the time the fax was sent, Alvarez-Aviles was suspended from the force pending dismissal on a charge of using excessive force in an arrest. An arbitrator subsequently rejected that firing, instead suspending him for 92 days.

In March, five-year veteran Robert Stowman Jr., 33, was charged federally with conspiring to deliver prescription drugs to a Baldwin Township weight-loss clinic. He tendered his resignation rather than go through the disciplinary procedure that was expected to end with his dismissal.

Future concerns

Other problems are potentially in the offing.

Will there be enough career-enhancing opportunities available as the young officers move through their careers?

Will the same kind of mass exodus occur when those hired in the mid-1990s are eligible for retirement?

Craig Fraser, director of management services for the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C., said a youthful force could have benefits if the right moves are made.

Kevin M. Gilmartin, a Tucson, Ariz., psychologist and law enforcement consultant, agreed that a young force "can be a blessing if senior management does the right thing -- really investing in training and accountability."

McNeilly, who was not chief when the retirements/hirings took place, has put into place programs for added training of supervisors and officers, an early warning system, performance evaluations and career development, moves that both Fraser and Gilmartin commended.

A savings plan

In 1992, the administration of then-Mayor Sophie Masloff was hoping to save money by offering a retirement incentive to veteran officers. The savings would accrue because new officers would initially make smaller salaries and overtime pay than experienced officers, and they wouldn't get longevity, or bonus pay, for six years. Also, it was believed the force could be cut to fewer than 1,000 officers, saving even more money.

On that basis, the city offered officers 50 years old with at least 25 years of service early retirement with an annual pension equal to three-fourths of their base salaries. The regular pension plan pays 50 percent of base salary. The one-time-only offer was valid for three years, ending Dec. 31, 1995.

The Pittsburgh lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police contended that the exodus of officers would be mitigated if the three-year eligibility period for the enhanced pension was lengthened. Also, the FOP proposed that the three-quarters pension be offered only to those with 30 years of service, with smaller incentives offered to those with between 25 and 29 years.

An arbitrator agreed with the city's proposal and it became part of the police arbitration award. Unforeseen gang warfare broke out in the city during the offer period. That effectively scuttled any attempt to reduce the force and provoked an 18-month ban on retirements until replacements were hired.

One of those who struggled with the decision to accept the incentive was Marshall "Smokey" Hynes, then a homicide detective and an FOP executive board member. Hynes, who retired in 1995 and subsequently was elected FOP president, said he wanted to stay on the job a little longer but couldn't penalize his family by forgoing a 50 percent increase in his pension.

"If they had extended the number of years the offer was available, I would have stayed on. There would have been a more gradual transition because there would not have been 400 people leaving all at once ... and that would have left some older officers to break the new ones in."

As 1996 dawned, half of the city's 1,171 officers had less than five years on the force, although some may have worked a year or so elsewhere. Two-thirds had less than 10 years of service, and the average experience for the entire force was 8.1 years.

Currently, the force numbers 1,060 officers with 9.5 percent having less than five years of service. More than half -- 53.1 percent -- have less than 10 years of service. The average years of service for the entire department now is 11.5 years.

Early problems

As commander of the Hill District station in early 1996, McNeilly saw the effects of the retirements firsthand. His station had become populated by young officers. Indeed, at the North Side station headed by his wife, Cmdr. Catherine McNeilly, 90 percent of the officers had less than three years of experience.

Also decimated by the retirements were the supervisory ranks. At the Hill District station, McNeilly had half of the regular contingent of sergeants and lieutenants. And many of those who were there had only a few more years on the force than the new recruits.

Moreover, because of the lack of experienced officers, the bureau abandoned its long-standing practice of field training, which entailed each academy graduate being teamed for three months with a veteran officer who acts as a mentor -- a guide to the world of Pittsburgh policing.

The combination of inexperience, lack of strong supervision and abandonment of field training was a volatile mix. The lack of on-the-job training and veteran supervision often resulted in aggressive policing that included wrecked cars, citizen complaints of abuse and other unwanted byproducts.

When McNeilly was named chief by Mayor Murphy in April 1996, he had no delusions that he was taking over a department at the top of its game.

"When I took over, I wanted to make sure we had all the supervisory posts filled and that they were trained appropriately. We had to let everyone know what's acceptable and what's not."

The motto McNeilly adopted for the department: "Accountability, integrity and respect."

Keys to success

It's possible to make a young department perform well, but only if several variables are in place, said Fraser of PERF, whose members are college-educated chiefs of large cities. McNeilly is a member.

"If there's very sound academy training with good mentoring and very aware supervisors, you can head off the types of problems you typically have with inexperience," Fraser said. "Without those things in place, it is harder and more dependent on the quality of people who were hired and how good the background checks were."

Just how good were the checks?

There's no solid evidence to prove that the need to quickly hire replacements compromised background checks; but if shortcuts were taken, it wouldn't be the first time a police force was backed into that corner. Miami and Washington, D.C., are two cities where poor screening during massive hirings resulted in numerous complaints of brutality and even fatal police shootings by the new recruits.

"Usually, when a big hiring push occurs, [cities] start cutting corners. That's a mistake," Gilmartin said. "When flaws are built into the system, they don't go away."

Privately, some Pittsburgh police officials who weren't involved in the screening process in the mid-1990s feel the massive hiring may have compromised thorough background checks.

McNeilly said he didn't know what happened before he was chief, but that he felt confident in the screening of the 22 officers hired in 1997, the only class brought on thus far during his watch.

And he's quick to point out that while there have been terminations, suspensions and other discipline, 90 percent to 95 percent of the officers on the force have never received even an oral reprimand, the lowest form of discipline.

Growing pains

Gilmartin, co-founder of a behavioral sciences/management consulting company, has written extensively about "the continuum of compromise" in a police officer's career, a framework for understanding the ethical challenges that can precipitate an "honest cop" becoming a "compromised officer."

Under the theory, many officers who "overidentify" with their job develop a perceived sense of victimization -- an "us vs. them" perception -- that can lead to rationalization for nonproductivity at work, administrative violations and even criminal acts.

If the theory holds true in Pittsburgh, it could have a more profound impact than elsewhere, Gilmartin said, because, "When a majority of your officers are going through the maturation process at the same time, they're all at high risk of inappropriate behavior, both on duty and off duty."

Because many officers lose the enthusiasm for their job after four or five years, Gilmartin said, such young departments as Pittsburgh's need to have "strong, continuing supervisor training, early identification of problem officers and ... [in-service] training and input at a higher level" than if the department had more varied experience levels.

Since taking over as chief, McNeilly has instituted numerous changes to deal with the potential problems associated with a young force. While some are required by the city's 1997 consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department, McNeilly had planned to institute them anyway.

Among the changes:

?The country's first field training program for new sergeants and lieutenants, who must complete both classroom work and on-the-job training before performing supervisory duties.

?Intensive in-service training for officers and supervisors. In fact, McNeilly, a commander and five sergeants completed an 80-hour police management course last week. Among the topics: The continuum of compromise.

?A computerized early warning system in which all aspects of an officer's job performance, good and bad, are listed so that hints of trouble brewing can be dealt with quickly and effectively.

?A job performance evaluation every six months in which supervisors evaluate those in their charge -- sergeants evaluate officers, lieutenants evaluate sergeants, commanders evaluate lieutenants and assistant chiefs evaluate commanders.

McNeilly said some steps had been taken and others were planned to deal with the potential for a major morale problem of there not being enough opportunities for career advancement.

The bureau has hired a human resources officer to provide career counseling to officers, making them aware, for example, what courses they need to take to achieve their goals in the bureau.

Also, in an effort to create more advancement opportunities, McNeilly is examining the possibility of establishing a rank of master patrol officer, a position that would have three or four steps with pay equal to that of detective.

McNeilly also wants to hire at least one class of officers a year to fill the positions of those who leave the force.

"It's healthy for the agency to have an infusion of new blood. It brings vitality and new ideas. ...We need diversity not only with race and sex and culture and religious beliefs, but also in age groupings," McNeilly said.

Yesterday, civil service exams were administered to applicants for a class of 41 officers expected to be hired this year to bring the force to its authorized strength of 1,101. Those chosen will be the first officers required to hold at least 60 college credits. Anecdotal evidence in other cities indicates that higher education results in a more professional force that, in turn, leads to fewer cases of police abuse, fewer citizen complaints and reduced liability.

"We're on a path. We want to meet or exceed all national standards. We've made great strides, but there's always room for improvement," McNeilly said.

"I think we're closer to our goal. But I never anticipate reaching it because every time you improve in one area you can always find other areas to improve."

Such vigilance, Gilmartin and Fraser said, is the key to a strong department, regardless of age and experience.

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