Pittsburgh police face snags in new system for staffing events

Organizers for large events such as PrideFest and Open Streets Pittsburgh said they have at times struggled to find Pittsburgh police officers to work their events since the city switched its protocols amid a federal scandal.

For the first time, PrideFest coordinators found themselves short on officers needed to work nine shifts, in part because fewer people volunteered than were needed, said Gary Van Horn, president of the Delta Foundation, which coordinates the event.

When BikePittsburgh worked with others to coordinate an event called Open Streets Pittsburgh, which shut down streets for yoga, kung fu and other activities, no officers showed up to fill the requested posts. A worker at the North Carolina-based company that now coordinates off-duty work for Pittsburgh police officers forgot to click a button that made the request for officers visible to the police force.

"We recognize there is a problem, and we're trying to deal with it," Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Stephen A. Bucar said Friday. City officials plan to meet with some event organizers this week to discuss ways to improve the process.

Trouble finding volunteers

Mr. Van Horn said the Delta Foundation worked with a Pittsburgh police unit that coordinates "special events" to come up with a safety plan for PrideFest this year.

In the past, the group had worked with a pair of lieutenants with whom it was familiar. Those lieutenants would schedule other officers they thought would react well to some of the "hot-button issues" that come with an event such as PrideFest, Mr. Van Horn said. They also helped ensure that enough people signed up to work the event.

Off-duty work came under scrutiny last year amid news that former police Chief Nate Harper and others worked to take checks from the bureau meant to pay for such work and deposited them into off-the-books accounts, which Harper tapped for his personal use. City officials changed the policies regarding off-duty work, and events as large as PrideFest must now be coordinated through a special events office rather than a small group of officers known as schedulers.

The city was pleasant to work with, but using the new rules that required officers to sign up online through the new coordinators, Cover Your Assets, meant he did not learn until about two days before the event that they were short officers to work at nine positions, Mr. Van Horn said.

"We've never had a situation like this before. There was a lot of briefing that was going on during the event that we should probably not be doing," he said.

The public safety director said, "Part of what everybody is trying to conclude is whether the fact that there are different people scheduling for different events is contributing [to the shortage]."

Mr. Van Horn said he felt some officers might have been reluctant to sign up for PrideFest because off-duty work is sometimes now given out based on seniority, so younger officers might not find out until shortly before the event whether they will actually be hired for it.

"You have to put your life on hold if you're going to work an off-duty detail until you find out whether you're going to get it," Mr. Van Horn said.

The public safety director said one of the issues he's looking at is whether there might be a way to post the work earlier and therefore allow more time for backup planning if there is a shortage.

Human error

Organizers for Open Streets Pittsburgh ran into a different problem: human error.

Mike Carroll, events coordinator for BikePittsburgh, which was one of the sponsors, said he asked for six off-duty officers to direct traffic Downtown beginning at 8 a.m. July 20. When Mayor Bill Peduto arrived about 9:30 a.m., there wasn't a single officer there, Mr. Carroll said.

The mayor's bodyguard called the Zone 2 station in the Hill District and asked for eight on-duty officers from across the city to help fill the void, according to a grievance the Pittsburgh police union filed.

The police union and city officials have recently battled over whether officials should be able to send on-duty officers to work off-duty events. Fraternal Order of Police President Howard McQuillan did not respond to messages.

Ted Cormier, owner of Cover Your Assets, said his company was responsible for the mix-up. He said company records show that Pittsburgh police Lt. Ed Trapp, who helps coordinate special events, contacted its office about 3:30 p.m. July 3 and asked the company to prepare the job for posting.

About an hour and a half later, a CYA employee confirmed to the lieutenant that she had received and processed the request, but Mr. Cormier said she forgot to hit a button that allowed the job postings to become visible to officers, so none of them knew they could sign up.

"The operator who was responsible for the human error was so upset that she has since resigned her position," Mr. Cormier said, noting that it was the second time in 10 years, and first time in Pittsburgh, something like that had happened.

"This revealed to Special Events and CYA the need for an alert on the system to show jobs that are built but not released, and CYA is now implementing new code ... to ensure that human error doesn't come into play again."

Mr. Cormier said it is possible for Pittsburgh police to run reports prior to events noting how many officers have signed up to work them. Mr. Bucar said he was not sure Friday what information the officers had access to in this case. Lt. Trapp and his supervisor, acting assistant chief of administration Thomas Stangrecki, declined comment.

Like the organizers of PrideFest, representatives from BikePittsburgh said this was the first major problem they experienced while trying to schedule officers for an event, and they are open to continuing to work with the city.

Scott Bricker, executive director of BikePittsburgh, said, "There's a level of understanding that with any new system there are kinks to be worked out."

Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil.

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