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Chief: Wheeling Police Staffing Vacancies Are ‘Concerning,’ Not a ‘Crisis’

photo by: Eric Ayres

Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger speaks during a meeting this past week of the Public Safety Committee of Wheeling City Council.

WHEELING — The Wheeling Police Department is currently operating with nine vacancies in the department. WPD Chief Shawn Schwertfeger said those shortages aren’t a crisis, but they’re enough of a concern that they should be addressed.

Wheeling City Councilman Ben Seidler was concerned about it during a recent meeting of the Public Safety Committee of Council. He said the department was “rapidly getting into a pretty serious situation with staffing levels,” and asked Schwertfeger to discuss the impact the current vacancies are having on the department and on the community.

“As of today, we have nine vacancies,” Schwertfeger said. “I would not infer that our current staffing levels are at a crisis, and the reason being is that less than a year ago, the city manager upped our allocated or authorized staffing level by five positions.”

The chief explained that the city transferred a number of positions from the patrol division to additional Prevention Resource Officer or PRO positions at the request of the Ohio County Schools.

“So our authorized number of positions is 78, and we currently have 69,” Schwertfeger said. “So that’s nine vacancies. Could I use them? Absolutely. But to put it in context, I think we have three to four conditional offers of employment that are pending the process, so that will help. But yes, the nine vacancies are concerning. I can certainly use those positions.”

Schwertfeger noted that Wheeling is not in the same position as some other cities, noting that he recently learned that another city of a very similar size to Wheeling had 21 vacancies in its police department.

“If we were experiencing similar numbers — 20 officers down — as our first step, we would have to transition to 12-hour shifts in order to provide adequate staffing levels,” the chief said. “But we are not there. We’re nowhere near that. Our numbers in patrol are actually slightly better today because of the additions made earlier this year, but where we’re hurting right now is in investigative positions. Most of our vacancies right now lie in investigative positions.”

Expanding to 12-hour shifts would provide more coverage with a smaller staff, but it could potentially create other problems, Schwertfeger explained. He said the idea has been considered in the past, and he has even surveyed his staff about the measure.

“It’s basically split down the middle,” he said. “Half of the department would be in favor, and half of the department would be vehemently opposed. I would tell you that national studies have declared that 12-hour shifts are more dangerous because of the hours put in and the fatigue factor, but there are also many departments that implement 12-hour shifts that just love it.”

Temporarily transferring to 12-hour shifts during events like major floods has happened in the past, but a permanent shift adjustment could leave the department very divided. While many officers like working longer shifts and getting additional days off, others do not, especially in situations where an officer may have to complete a 12-hour shift, then get two hours of sleep only to get up and have to be in court for a case the next morning.

“Quite honestly, I’d think I’d have some resignations if we did it,” Schwertfeger said.

The Wheeling Police Department has been working to fill vacancies in the department over the past couple of years, even offering signing bonuses — including a $20,000 signing bonus that was recently offered for candidates who are already certified officers in the state of West Virginia.

But even incentives like signing bonuses can be a tough sell in a very competitive job market with vacancies in a myriad of career fields.

“We’re also aware of compensation pressure that’s being put on Wheeling from neighboring communities, such as the sheriff’s department and state police,” Wheeling City Manager Robert Herron said. “Some of them have recently bumped their starting pay to $55,000 per year. So we’re looking at that, and I’m hopeful that we can make some adjustments to that end of the spectrum as far as recruitment and retention of police officers here in the next couple of months.”

The impact of being down officers is reflected mostly in the different types of police operations the department can conduct when fully staffed.

“My dream for the last 10 years has been to create a Neighborhood Resource Unit, which is sort of a ‘Green Beret’ of policing that goes out and handles whatever type of problem a neighborhood or community may be experiencing,” Schwertfeger said. “So that’s the biggest thing — the ability to be extremely proactive.”

In order to provide adequate coverage when down nine positions, the department does accrue overtime, the chief noted.

While there are future officers in the pipeline, the process of getting new candidates certified takes time. They have to go through the Police Academy, be trained in the field and complete a process that can take several months at least before they can hit the streets as rookie police officers.

“The process itself is usually nine to 11 months,” Schwertfeger said. “In there lies the pain — it takes a day for a resignation, but it takes nine to 11 months or even up to a year to recoup that loss.”

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