Schwertfeger: Police Department Adapting Well to Changes

WHEELING – If he didn’t know better, Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger might believe his department’s switch from two officers to one per patrol car took place years ago, not last week.

After Wheeling residents in November voted to overturn a 1972 mandate requiring the chief assign two officers to each vehicle, new police patrol and incident response protocols went into full effect at 6 a.m. Jan. 6. Schwertfeger praised his staff’s overall response to the new procedures, from shift commanders to patrol officers and dispatchers.

“It’s a huge change after 40-plus years … I’m extremely proud of the positive work attitudes of the officers,” he said, noting only minor snags in the transition – mostly in locating enough cameras, test kits and other equipment to outfit the additional cruisers that are now being pressed into service each shift.

Based on what he’s observed, Cpl. Neil Fowkes also believes officers are adjusting well to the new policy.

“Morale seems to be high,” Fowkes said.

Fowkes serves as coordinator and liaison to the Governor’s Highway Safety Program, so the change isn’t as new to him as it is to others in the department.

The targeted DUI and traffic enforcement activities he coordinates moved to single-officer patrols almost immediately following the Nov. 6 election, and he said the flexibility has made his job easier.

“We get more visibility, more patrols out there. … You might have a patrol watching the interstate and another one out on National Road,” he said.

Lt. Phil Redford, a shift commander, also said the transition has been smooth, noting he has yet to hear any negative feedback on the new procedures.

Despite the positive attitude, the Wheeling Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 38’s legal challenge of the process by which City Council decided to put the cruiser issue before voters remains pending in Ohio County Circuit Court.

The lawsuit claims the legislative process violated the city charter and West Virginia’s open meetings law, and lodge members historically have resisted attempts to overturn the two-per-cruiser policy, citing officer safety and concerns over future staffing as reasons for their position.

FOP President Sgt. Thomas Howard said he hasn’t heard of any major problems with the new procedure, but noted it’s a major adjustment and one week is too early to judge the process.

“They’re doing their job and doing what they’re told,” Howard said of the officers. “We’re trying to watch everything the best we can and trying to keep everybody safe. … One way or another, we’re going to do our job.”

Councilman Robert “Herk” Henry, a former city police officer, was the only council member who opposed putting the cruiser law on the ballot. He said he would have preferred the police department wait until the legal dispute is resolved to make a policy change, and he stands by his opinion that solo patrols compromise officer safety.

“I still think you ought to have two guys in a cruiser … but the people voted for one man, so I guess I’ve got to go with it for now,” said Henry. “Until someone gets hurt, then they might be sorry they did it. But then it will be too late.”

Following the election, Schwertfeger spent several weeks working with officers and dispatchers to develop the new protocols. One new rule requires a mandatory minimum of six officers per shift, with no exceptions – and calls for service are now divided into three categories, each with different response requirements.

Priority one calls include violent crimes such as shootings or armed robberies, particularly those in progress, and require the response of two officers and a supervisor. Priority two calls – domestic violence, for example – require two officers to respond, but not a supervisor.

Priority three calls, including minor traffic accidents, vandalism and other less dangerous situations, only require a single-officer response.

The department’s Delta shift – what Schwertfeger describes as an unofficial street crimes unit that works from 8:30 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. – still operates with two officers per car, although one unit will ride solo if there’s an odd number of officers on that shift on a given night.

“There’s danger 24-7 in law enforcement, but if you narrow it down to peak times, you’re going to see most of your violent crimes during those hours,” said Schwertfeger.

Providing residents the additional police coverage afforded by the new patrol procedures may involve an additional cost to taxpayers. That will be a consideration for Schwertfeger as he prepares to submit his budget request for the 2013-14 fiscal year, which is due to City Manager Robert Herron by Friday.

But for the current year, Schwertfeger already has asked City Council to authorize the purchase of additional cruisers for the department’s fleet, which currently includes about 40 vehicles.

The city issued a request for proposals on four 2013 Ford Interceptor sedans with a bid opening set for Thursday, although the chief said he hasn’t yet received a firm commitment on that request.

The department has already spent 66 percent of its $150,000 annual fuel budget, just slightly more than halfway through the current fiscal year.

That discrepancy can only be expected to increase with more cruisers on the streets, but Schwertfeger is confident he will have the flexibility to pull funds from other line items to compensate.

“We’re going to be over budget, but that’s going to be expected. I’m just glad that we’re not responsible for hundreds of square miles; we’re only responsible for 16,” he said, referencing his last job in Virginia where his department’s jurisdiction covered about 740 square miles.

Budget documents show the department’s expenses for gas, oil and diesel increased from $111,528 for the 2009-10 fiscal year to $161,660 in 2010-11, and were projected to reach $186,980 for the 2011-12 year at the time that year’s proposed budget was submitted in February.

The police department’s overall budget for 2012-13 is about $7.35 million.