In early September, there were 870 police officers on the city's payroll, even though money had been allocated for 892.
The gap between the money budgeted for officers and those actually on the force has long been a complaint of Pittsburgh City Council and of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1, which represents the bureau's rank-and-file officers.
On Wednesday, council gave unanimous preliminary approval to a bill that's intended to bridge that gap and perhaps to even expand the bureau. But those involved in the long and tedious hiring process for police officers said it will have little impact on increasing hiring until other issues concerning training are addressed.
In an era of perpetual lamentation about understaffing in city neighborhoods, why is the city not hiring the officers when it has the money?
The reasons are complex, connected to the ebb of officers away from the bureau -- through retirement, or through attrition to other departments -- and the flow of officers into the bureau, where the timeline for testing, screening and training most aspiring officers is nearly two years.
The bill, sponsored by Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, would compel the city to "initiate the hiring process" any time the number of officers fell below 900.
Ms. Kail-Smith said she wanted the city to be proactive in training cadets so they would be fully trained when an opening came about.
But the bill, as it is written, will have little effect, said public safety director Mike Huss and personnel director Judy Hill-Finnegan. Ms. Hill-Finnegan said the city, for at least the last year, has been perpetually in one phase or another of the lengthy hiring process. Currently, for example, the city has recruits in the training academy and is screening another class of candidates for a class next year.
And Mr. Huss said the city can't train recruits the city is not budgeted to hire.
To even be selected for the academy, law enforcement hopefuls have to sit for a police civil service exam that is given about every year and a half. They then have an oral exam -- also scored -- and are placed on an eligibility list from highest to lowest score. Then they wait for the city to decide to assemble a class of recruits.
Mr. Huss said Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has historically decided when to put on a class and academy classes are capped at 40. Mayoral spokeswoman Marissa Doyle said his "decision is based on how many officers have retired and discussions with police."
Ms. Hill-Finnegan said that often twice as many candidates are screened as there is room for in the academy. Those selected for the academy are put through the ringer with a physical assessment test, a polygraph interview and an in-depth background check conducted by the bureau's own officers. The process can take around half a year, and many of those screened are eliminated at one point or another.
"It's a lot of work," she said. "We want to get the most qualified people into the academy and onto our streets to protect our residents."
Ms. Hill-Finnegan said the city is churning out recruits about as fast as it can. Training consists of eight months in the academy and three months of fieldwork. This year, the city ran back-to-back classes. As soon as one class finished its fieldwork, another class started. The city has hired 30 officers this year, she said.
There is another class of cadets in the academy, four of whom graduated early in September because of prior experience at other departments. The remaining will graduate in February. And the city is in the process of screening another class of candidates who -- if they pass the screening -- will start in mid-March.
Ms. Hill-Finnegan said it would be possible to run more concurrent classes -- as the city did this year -- to increase the hiring.
But, by and large, the city can't do much without increasing its training capacity. Also, Mr. Huss said he can't risk going over budget. So if, for example, the bureau is down 30 officers, it might put on a class for about that many recruits.
If more officers leave during the 18-month period it takes to screen, train and graduate a class, the bureau will remain under its budgeted number.
Ms. Kail-Smith suggested that perhaps the solution is to increase the city's capacity to train officers and to further streamline the screening process so that it doesn't take six or seven months to prepare a class for the academy.
She suggested, for example, that the city consider using an outside firm to conduct background checks so it is not relying on its own overburdened officers to do them. And she also pitched the idea of a joint city-county training facility that could hold larger classes of officers.
She said she did not fault anyone in the current administration for the gap.
"What I fault is the process," she said. "I think it's a lengthy, tedious process that needs to be streamlined."
Ms. Kail-Smith said other details of the bill are still being worked out and added that there may be additional policy changes to resolve the issue. She said she wants to see a minimum of 900 officers on the force and said she would consider budgeting for officers above and beyond that if that's what it took.
She added that around half the force is eligible for retirement and fears that if the city does not proactively train classes in preparation of losing officers, the bureau will fall far below its budgeted number.
"We need to make sure that we're addressing an issue [before] we're too late," she said.
Moriah Balingit: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. First Published October 9, 2013 9:44 AM