22 Pittsburgh police recruits graduate from academy

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The message delivered to Pittsburgh police recruits when they graduated from the training academy on Friday was clear: Your goal is to stay safe, follow policy and uphold the integrity of the bureau.

In the 10 months since the 22 recruits began their training, they have seen at least two officers shot and wounded, the indictment of a police chief and the scrutiny of several officers whose arrests or call responses have caused controversy.

The class of 17 men and five women, all of whom may begin working solo on Monday, joins the force at a time when department administrators are struggling to address a manpower shortage and ongoing calls for greater diversity and to rebuild strained relationships with skeptical residents.

Pittsburgh's latest police officers are sworn in

The latest group of Pittsburgh police officers were sworn in and given their duty assignments. (Video by Doug Oster 7/12/2013)

"You've completed the transformation from citizens to police officers," police union President Sgt. Michael LaPorte told the recruits gathered at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in East Liberty. "What you do will have lifelong consequences."

Last August, 41 cadets began training. Eleven of them were veteran officers who had served in other departments and graduated earlier because they required less training. Four are still in training for various reasons and six either left on their own accord or failed out of the program.

The group that graduated Friday included five women, one of whom is black, two black men and a Hispanic man. The rest were white males.

Historically, minorities have accounted for a small percentage of the police force. When the bureau collected statistics for its 2011 annual report, the latest available, women accounted for 19 percent of the force, which was 84 percent white.

Their graduation, police administrators said, will help fill some of the vacant positions in Zone 2 in the Hill District and Zone 5 in Highland Park, which typically receives more calls than any other station in the city.

PG graphic: Pittsburgh police zones
(Click image for larger version)

Police union leaders and administrators have been saying for months that those two zones are short of officers. Eight officers retired between January and April of this year and others had said they intended to do so. Additional officers have left the bureau to take higher-paying positions in other departments.

Nine of the officers who graduated Friday will work out of the Zone 5 station and six will work out of the Zone 2 station.

"There are a lot of senior officers leaving this department, and our class only scratches the surface," Officer Bobbie Bertalan said when she addressed her class during a speech at the ceremony. Then, she calculated and told them she thought that if they answered an average of 10 calls per shift, they could collectively respond to 6,000 911 calls in a month.

Deputy police chief Paul Donaldson asked the recruits not to join the list of those who have recently left.

"It kind of saddens me that I know that some of you are already thinking of taking the training that we have given you and going to an outside agency," he said. "The grass is not always greener."

Public safety director Michael Huss, touching briefly on shootings that have left officers wounded, reminded the recruits to be safe and alert and to do their best to keep things in perspective.

"Just remember, it's not always about catching the bad guy and those types of things," he said, noting that some officers saved lives earlier this week by preventing people from driving into floodwater.

Sgt. LaPorte warned the new officers of the microscope they operate under as officers. "From this point forward until you retire, you will be in the public eye, subject to Monday morning quarterbacking," he said.

Some of the recruits have already seen that. Among the veteran officers assigned to mentor the recruits were Officer Jonathan Gromek, whose arrest of a teacher in Homewood angered community groups, and Officers Lance Hoyson and Louis Schweitzer, whose response to a woman's disconnected 911 call the day before she was found dead was the subject of an internal investigation and prompted calls for more domestic violence training.

The Rev. John Welch, chief chaplain for the bureau, prayed that the recruits would help rebuild "the bridge of trust between law enforcement and the community [that] has been eroded."

Officer Gino Macioce said this class of new recruits is up for the challenge and views this as chance to help build a good name for the bureau: "I know everyone here is especially excited to get out and help the community."

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Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1438 and on Twitter: @LizNavratil. First Published July 12, 2013 5:15 PM


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