Police Chief Is Frustrated

WHEELING – On the wall in the third floor hallway of the City-County Building in Wheeling is a list of names – a list that Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger is frustrated to learn probably won’t be getting shorter anytime soon. They’re the people who have passed Wheeling’s probationary police officer examination, waiting for a call to be hired.

Among City Manager Robert Herron’s recommendations to save Wheeling more than $800,000 during the current fiscal year is cutting 11 of Wheeling’s 83 budgeted police officer positions. Of the slots to be cut, 10 are already vacant, leaving one more to be eliminated through attrition.

Although layoffs aren’t part of the equation, Schwertfeger said the changes will have a definite impact on operations.

“I’m vehemently opposed to the recommendations. I’m deeply concerned that over 50 percent of the overall citywide cuts are coming from the police department. … I didn’t foresee this coming. I didn’t think these types of cuts would even be given consideration,” Schwertfeger said.

Several of the positions on the chopping block have been vacant for months, with Schwertfeger draining his overtime budget to keep plenty of cruisers on the streets at all times – something he believed would be a temporary situation. He estimates the average officer is working about 50 hours per week.

“I see the impact it’s had on this department,” Schwertfeger said. “Guys are having to work doubles. The long hours … have not only a physical but a mental effect. And when you think about the impact on families, it’s a problem.”

It’s a situation Schwertfeger and Sgt. Tom Howard, president of Wheeling’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 38, know can’t continue forever. Howard believes not filling the department’s vacancies could lead eventually to fewer officers on patrol and longer response times in emergencies.

“That’s going to be a big hit,” he said of Herron’s proposal. “What services are going to be pulled, we don’t know. … That’s a hard decision for the chief.”

Schwertfeger said moving forward, the department may no longer be able to dedicate an officer specifically for traffic enforcement, or continue to operate what he calls the department’s “power shift” – additional officers who work during peak times for criminal activity to supplement the normal shift.

Another possibility is pulling the officer assigned to the Mountaineer Highway Interdiction Team, a collaborative effort between federal, county and local law enforcement to stem the flow of illegal drugs through the area. That’s something Schwertfeger said he doesn’t want to do with the Ohio Valley in the grips of a growing drug epidemic.

During Monday’s meeting, Herron compared the size of Wheeling’s police force to that of Parkersburg and Morgantown – slightly larger cities, each of which have fewer than 70 police officers, he said.

But Schwertfeger doesn’t believe that’s a valid comparison. Morgantown, he said, benefits from having West Virginia University’s police force in town, as well as a large State Police detachment.

Although he’s frustrated the police department will bear the brunt of the looming cuts, Schwertfeger said he and his officers will remain focused on doing their job, and doing it well.

“It’s not the end of the world. The city’s not going to burn down or be overcome with crime,” he said.