Police Department Facility Inadequate, Needs Replaced

I have read several articles or editorials recently regarding a proposed public safety facility in the City of Wheeling. In my opinion, these articles contain quite a bit of conjecture and miss the point entirely. As a public servant in the law enforcement profession, I can no longer sit idly by and not make an effort to present the readers with factual information.

The Wheeling Police Department entered its current location in 1959. Sixty years later, the WPD is still here with no meaningful attempts to expand, relocate, or upgrade functional space. The WPD is allocated for 86 full-time employees and additionally utilizes more than 25 volunteers and Police Explorers, the largest police agency in the region. We all work in 4,650 square feet of space. That is unacceptable in 21st Century policing.

The WPD has vehicles scattered in a variety of locations throughout the city. Equipment is stored throughout the city as well and, in some circumstances, in the basements of police officers. There is no space designated for proper briefings and trainings. Officers stand in an office to receive their roll call briefings and instructions.

Policing requires significant training, particularly in high liability areas such as defensive tactics, Taser, simulation training, etc. We continue to have to plead with other venues and even pay to be able to conduct that training.

Woefully inadequate is the space and design to manage the amount of evidence that comes into the WPD, not to mention the unsafe storage of it. I could fill the newspaper with accounts of inadequate space.

Wheeling Police staff has no place to take breaks, no place to shower, exercise or stow belongings and gear. If they choose to take a meal break in our lone “conference room,” they risk eating next to where an officer tests dangerous narcotics and that is if they can find space on a table that is buried with necessary equipment. Female employees have to leave the police department to use the restroom; and if a citizen came to our building who may have a physical disability, he or she would have to be carried to different areas of the building due to a lack of ADA compliance.

The WPD firearms instructors presently have no armory with which to maintain, repair, or safely discharge firearms. Weapons, ammunition, and explosives are stored in areas not designed for that purpose. I also have many other safety concerns. The booking area is accessed by the same door that employees of the city and county utilize to come and go; there is no secure parking for police officers or access to the booking area.

Finally, there are intangibles that exist. It is hard to recruit and retain law enforcement professionals today. It does not make it easier when a recruit comes to our department and sees conditions or an officer who has to work in those conditions. I have seen firsthand how professionalism, pride, and efficiency soar when a law enforcement officer works in a structure that is safe, functional, and provides multiple opportunities for training, fitness, and well-being.

I was astonished at the conditions when I started here seven years ago and have been talking about the conditions to anyone who would listen. A few years ago, our current city council did listen and has made efforts since day one to find a solution. The mayor and council are not trying to “ram” this project down anyone’s throat. City council and city staff are trying to fix something that has been put off for way too long. I applaud them for that. After all, they are listening and trying to fix a significant problem that will benefit the citizens and visitors of Wheeling for years to come. No “due diligence” on this one is not fair and is clearly not factual.

We can debate and debate on how or IF the funding should be raised. Sometimes government and elected leaders have to make difficult decisions for the municipalities they represent. Don’t forget that they represent the work force as well. Isn’t that what government is supposed to do?

The previously mentioned editorials and articles fail to even mention what should be talked about extensively, yet NEVER is. What do a Wheeling police officer and firefighter do or have to do every day, night, weekend, and holiday? What are the risks, sacrifices, emotional and physical impacts? With that in mind, add the current conditions of the workplace and do the math on need versus want.

This project is an investment for the future of our historic city. The men and women of the city of Wheeling public safety departments deserve to see this project come to fruition.

Schwertfeger is chief of police in Wheeling.


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