When Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger took office earlier this summer, handcuffs were slapped on his wrists, in effect. He learned that unlike virtually all of his peers, he does not have the authority to schedule his officers as he believes is best to protect residents of the city.
The handcuffs are in the form of a city requirement that police cars cannot be sent out on patrol with fewer than two officers in them. That drastically limits the chief's ability to place cruisers when and where he believes they will do the most good.
Established years ago as a measure to safeguard police officers, the rule cannot be rescinded without approval of Wheeling voters. Last week City Council took the first step in calling for a referendum on the matter.
The so-called "two-man cruiser" rule has been controversial for several years. Proponents insist it is needed to keep officers safe and to ensure that in crisis situations, police can respond with adequate force.
But as Schwertfeger notes, there are many situations in which it doesn't make sense to have two officers in a cruiser. Some traffic control duty, as well as routine action involving taking reports on minor crimes, can be handled with a single officer.
As the chief realizes, there are situations - late-night patrols, for example - when cruisers should be staffed by two officers. No doubt Schwertfeger, if given the flexibility, will maintain that extra margin of caution when necessary.
Again, however, he has no flexibility now.
Council will vote again on the proposed change at its Aug. 21 meeting. Members should agree to hold a referendum on the matter during the Nov. 6 election to give voters an opportunity to rescind the two-officer cruiser requirement. This is a matter of public safety, and the public deserves to have a say in it.