In the city of Pittsburgh's six police zones, sergeants are the coaches, the mentors and the disciplinarians, supervising and advising patrol officers who face critical, life-and-death decisions.
But Councilman Patrick Dowd and the Fraternal Order of Police believe the ranks of sergeants who directly oversee the boots on the streets are too thin.
"We are absolutely understaffed in our supervisory roles within the patrol division," said Officer Robert Swartzwelder, a member of the Labor Management Committee for the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 1. "I would say dangerously understaffed."
The issue came up during a discussion last week on domestic violence legislation proposed in the wake of the death of Ka'Sandra Wade.
Wade, 33, was found slain less than a day after she called 911 on New Year's Eve. The two officers who came to her Larimer apartment left after speaking to her boyfriend, Anthony L. Brown, who later admitted to killing her before he committed suicide.
While others -- including Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Councilman Ricky Burgess and some women's groups -- have focused their efforts on exploring new policies for the bureau, Mr. Dowd said policies won't make any difference if there's not enough supervision in the zones.
"If we don't have the supervisors supervising ... you've got a management problem and it doesn't matter what your policies are," he said at the meeting last week.
Typically there are two sergeants and a lieutenant working the night shift in Zone 5. But on New Year's Eve, there was only one supervisor, a sergeant, who doubled as the acting lieutenant because the lieutenant also was off.
Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson said that although only one sergeant was working when the Wade call came in, the officers never called the sergeant, so the number of supervisors on duty was not an issue.
"I think they should have asked for a supervisor's input, but they didn't," he said. "The fact is they made a determination on their own and didn't take it any further."
Sergeants, in addition to answering officers' inquiries and requests for guidance, also are directed to listen to the police radio and step in where they think they're needed. Chief Donaldson said the department's internal investigation delved into that aspect as well, but he would not say what they found.
Chief Donaldson said that although there are fewer sergeants than there once were in the Police Bureau, there is still adequate staffing. There are seven sergeants each currently assigned to Zone 5 and Zone 2, compared to eight in three other similarly sized zones. (Zone 6, which is considerably smaller, has six sergeants).
"We have more responsibilities, and we just don't have the number of sergeants available," he said.
Chief Donaldson pointed out that both Zone 5 and Zone 2 had one sergeant vacancy each that is going to be filled as soon as the bureau receives approval from the director of public safety. He did not know how long the vacancies had existed.
Chief Donaldson defended the bureau's staffing decisions in the zones, saying it's the result of a careful calculus that weighs the zone's geographic size and crime rate. The bureau also weighs other "intangibles," like the influx of workday commuters Downtown, patrolled by Zone 2, and the large university population in Oakland and Squirrel Hill, patrolled by Zone 4.
The available workforce is divided up accordingly, he said, with the chief's office determining how many officers, sergeants and lieutenants should work per shift.
But he acknowledged that there has been a decline in the number of sergeants per zone. There was a time, he said, when one lieutenant and three sergeants was the standard. For many reasons, he said, that level of staffing is no longer possible. He said the reopening of Zone 6 in 2008, a station that was shut down five years prior, stretched resources, he said.
Officer Swartzwelder said he also has concerns about sergeant staffing levels, as well as the deployment of the sergeants on the force.
"You also need sergeants there if there's difficult decisions to make," said Officer Swartzwelder -- difficult decisions like "whether to kick down a door."
And difficult decisions like the ones faced by two officers Dec. 31 when they responded to a 911 call from Wade, whose phone went dead after a call taker heard a commotion. Although Officer Swartzwelder said, as Chief Donaldson did, that another sergeant at Zone 5 might not have made a difference, he said that having a sergeant at the 911 center -- where civilian employees answer and dispatch calls -- might have made a difference.
Mr. Dowd and the union have accused the bureau of "hiding" sergeants in jobs where they don't supervise patrol officers, the role they consider most critical because of the guidance sergeants provide. Officer Swartzwelder pointed to the sergeant assigned to guard the mayor, the central records and reporting unit and two sergeants who monitor officers as they check in to testify at court.
But Chief Donaldson said the sergeants are needed in the warrant office, because supervisors have the authority to approve paperwork.
A 2005 report prepared by the International Association of the Chiefs of Police following a study of the bureau made recommendations regarding deployment of supervisors.
It recommended, among other things, that the bureau shift some desk jobs and clerical work to civilians who could, for example, answer the phone at the zone stations. It also recommended there be five sergeants per shift in each zone.
Police said there are typically between one and three sergeants on a shift. Officer Swartzwelder said the union estimated the city could have saved $16 million in the years since the report was published by replacing desk officers in the zones with civilians. Replacing other administrative roles with civilians could potentially free up sergeants who should be on the street, supervising patrol officers, he said.
Chief Donaldson accused the union of cherry-picking from the report and pointed out that it also recommended that the city reduce its police force and close its training academy. And, he said, if the city were to put civilians in desk jobs currently held by police, they would likely cut the force overall, rather than move officers from desk jobs to the street.
"I think there are some good recommendations that were in there, but I think you cannot take it verbatim and say everything in this report you should do," he said. He believes the recommendation of five sergeants per shift is excessive and not feasible in a time of shrinking budgets.
What Mr. Dowd is asking for, he said in last Wednesday's meeting, is a rebalance of the city's resources.
"Maybe we ought to start thinking about how to restructure the distribution of supervisors that we have," he said.
Moriah Balingit: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.