Wilkinsburg’s mess: The borough cannot afford strife in its police force
April 20, 2017 12:00 AM
Wilkinsburg police Chief Ophelia Coleman
By the Editorial Board
When a police department is riven by internal strife, criminals gain the upper hand. That’s why Wilkinsburg needs to put its house in order fast.
Amid the firing of one officer for neglecting his duty and the pending suspension of three others for reasons that haven’t been made public, some members of the department have circulated a three-page, unsigned letter criticizing police Chief Ophelia “Cookie” Coleman for problems that include mistreatment of officers and a hostile work environment. Carl A. Bailey, secretary/treasurer of Teamsters Local 205, which represents borough officers, described Chief Coleman as a poor manager and the department as “a huge mess.” He threatened a “war” against Wilkinsburg.
That’s the last thing the people there deserve.
Chief Coleman dismissed the criticism as the handiwork of the disciplined officers and claimed that others on the force have written a counter-letter supporting her. “Morale is fine,” she said. “There’s no turbulence.” Yet Mr. Bailey told the Post-Gazette’s Jonathan D. Silver that the dissension is so severe some officers fear they won’t get backup on calls.
However she tries to spin it, Chief Coleman has a problem on her hands, and Mayor John Thompson and borough Manager Donn Henderson need to step in and solve it before someone gets hurt — either because no backup arrives, as Mr. Bailey fears, or because the strife saps officers’ energy and distracts them from their jobs.
This is no time to lose focus on policing. A week ago, a man and his probation officer were shot on the porch of a Marlboro Avenue house. Two suspects remain at large. A year ago, five adults and an unborn child were fatally shot and three others wounded in an attack on a backyard cookout on Franklin Avenue. Two men are awaiting trial in that case. Homicide is so common in Wilkinsburg, Detective Michael Adams said last month, that every officer had responded to one within a year of joining the department.
On the anniversary of the Franklin Avenue tragedy, Chief Coleman praised Wilkinsburg’s resilience and her department’s professionalism, citing high levels of training, equipment purchased with grants, and efforts to build rapport with schoolchildren and others in the community. Because the community already was coalescing in a spirit of improvement, she said, it did not “crumble” when the Franklin Avenue shootings occurred.
If the community has come together, it would be a grave disservice to let the police department crumble. The community’s resilience should inspire borough officials to get to the bottom of whatever discipline problems, management weaknesses and personality clashes threaten the force.
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