Keeping Enough Police on Streets

Asking whether Wheeling has enough police officers on the street is a fair question. That is especially true in view of the drug abuse epidemic that has hit West Virginia with special ferocity.

But city officials taking another look at police department staffing are asking the wrong question. It is not whether Chief Shawn Schwertfeger should be given authority to expand the force, but rather, why it seems difficult to attract and retain enough officers under existing limits.

Under former Mayor Andy McKenzie’s administration, a policy of “right-sizing” municipal government was launched. As part of that, the size of the police department was reduced by 11 people in 2014.

Now, Mayor Glenn Elliott and some members of City Council seem to think that was a mistake. “Going forward, it is my hope that our budget will afford room for additional positions,” Elliott told our reporter.

The department has 72 positions, but five of them are vacant. “It’s been an ongoing problem. We’ve been operating anywhere from five to nine short for at least five years,” Deputy Chief Martin Kimball said for a story we published last Sunday. “We have guys working overtime just to meet our minimum staffing levels.”

Elliott said difficulty in keeping the department staffed fully can be explained, at least in part, by the lag between when an officer retires and when a replacement, once hired, can begin work. It takes about six months to train a new officer, he noted. Much of that can be in time spent at the State Police Training Academy.

In addition, it is more difficult than in the past to attract people to the police department.

Before they consider expanding the force, city officials should investigate whether there are ways to attract more applicants and retain them — with better pay, if necessary — and to cope with the gap between hiring an officer and putting him or her to work. Expanding the force would merely dodge the problem, not solve it.