East Pittsburgh officials remain optimistic about collaborating with neighboring municipalities to develop a regional police force.
The borough of about 1,800 people disbanded its police department less than a month ago and has been relying on state police to patrol the community.
Mayor Louis Payne and council members say they’re hopeful momentum is mounting for nearby municipal officials to pool resources and form a single, larger police force charged with serving multiple communities. They’ve reached out to the Turtle Creek Valley Council of Governments, state representatives and invited more than a dozen local municipalities to begin discussions early next year.
“We have five (municipalities) ready to go for January,” Mayor Payne said Tuesday night, shortly after adjourning the first council meeting since the borough dissolved its police department. “We have big meetings coming up in January. It’s probably going to happen.”
Pennsylvania State Police began patrolling East Pittsburgh on Dec. 1, after receiving a formal letter from the borough requesting the service on Nov. 13.
But turning control over to state police is only supposed to be a temporary solution.
“Our initial goal was to merge with a larger municipality that employs full-time officers, but such an agreement would require intense planning as well as majority support from that municipality’s elected officials. These talks are still ongoing but have been slow-moving,” the borough wrote to residents in a letter announcing the decision.
Markus Adams, 54, who bought a home in the borough in 2012, said “one of the things that attracted me to East Pittsburgh was the local police presence” but he understands the cash-strapped borough’s need to rely on state police, at least for the short term.
“To disband the current agency, to bring in the state, I think that that was probably a good thing to do for a couple different reasons. One, it’s going to help to alleviate the pressure for taxes. Also, I think that it’s a good idea to maybe bring in some new faces, especially on a higher level of law enforcement, that would help to build trust,” Adams said.
At first, “it was a concern for me having law enforcement come from so far away, but up to this point, it seems like everything is under control,” Adams said.
Jonathan Reyes, 31, who bought a house in East Pittsburgh in March, said he understands the need for state police but didn’t like how quickly the change came about.
“The main thing that I feel about the transition is that it just came as a surprise and it was untransparent,” Reyes said.
The borough’s letter to residents said officials began talks with state police in September “after it became evident that other potential solutions would not be attainable in the immediate future.”
Among failed attempts, East Pittsburgh and North Braddock reached out to Allegheny County Police about patrolling the boroughs.
Talks fizzled in late September over staffing issues and costs. The county wanted $800,000 a year to take over policing for East Pittsburgh and $1.2 million for North Braddock — more than double what each had been spending on their police departments. East Pittsburgh, which on Tuesday adopted a $1.2 million budget for 2019, had been willing to put up $300,000.
The county’s policing estimates were higher in part because they pay their officers significantly more — on average, about $90,000 a year. East Pittsburgh and North Braddock each pay their part-time officers closer to $15 an hour.
“Most of the police officers we’ve hired in recent years have moved on to larger departments,” the borough said in its letter to residents, posted online Nov. 30. “We can no longer compete with larger police agencies offering full-time work with higher pay and benefits.”
State police are obligated to provide services at no cost to any municipality without its own law enforcement. About half the state’s more than 2,500 municipalities rely on state police for protection.
Borough officials have said they’ve been mulling disbanding their police force for years, but negotiations intensified following the June 19 fatal shooting of unarmed 17-year-old Antwon Rose II. Officer Michael Rosfeld faces a homicide charge in the shooting. His trial is scheduled for Feb. 26.
Rose’s death sparked protests across Allegheny County for weeks and spurred activists to call for improved training, accountability and use-of-force policies in place at the county’s more than 100 police departments.
Prior to Dec. 1, East Pittsburgh had been down to four part-time police officers and Chief Lori Fruncek for two months — half the number it had at the time of the Antown Rose shooting. Officers Nathaniel Calebro and Brian Jenks resigned in September, and officer Brian Neff resigned in October. Rosfeld remained on leave following the shooting until the department disbanded.