Pittsburgh Housing Authority defends use of constables as officers
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The Pittsburgh Housing Authority gave up its police force five years ago, and last year launched an effort to wrest back some control over public safety by hiring constables to patrol, disperse loiterers and investigate suspicious activity in seven of its apartment communities.
The effort, though, has been beset by glitches, legal questions and concerns that some of the constables submitted questionable documentation of the hours they worked.
Some security industry professionals say the use of constables as beat cops is illegal. Others say the authority's bidding process was improper. A constable who was central to organizing the effort, but who was fired shortly after it was fully implemented, said last week that his fellow constables may be working in a manner that runs afoul of the rules.
Authority Executive Director A. Fulton Meachem Jr. said the constables project was cost-effective, and that crime in the city's public housing communities fell last year by 3 percent.
"We felt like it was imperative that we had a very trained workforce out there working for our residents," he said.
He defended the process by which the authority awarded a $1.23 million-per-year constable management contract to Carnegie-based Victory Security, but skirted questions about the legality of the program. "If the law at this point allows [the constable program], then we should have the opportunity to do it."
The authority long had its own police, but merged it into the Pittsburgh Police Bureau in 2007 to shave its $4 million-a-year cost. The authority agreed to pay the city $1 million a year for three years to provide enhanced police coverage of its communities, but that arrangement ended in 2010.
The city still polices the communities, but authority residents missed having more direct contact with officers, Mr. Meachem said. Believing that security guards wouldn't have the necessary training, and police would cost $45 an hour, the authority settled on constables.
Constables are state-certified professionals, some elected and others appointed by district judges, who are trained in legal processes and use of firearms. They are independent contractors who are paid piecemeal for arrests, service of warrants and subpoenas, and other work they do for district judges.
Last year, the authority held a bidding process and hired Castle Shannon-based Specialized Security Response Inc. to provide and manage constables for $1.8 million a year. But there were "scheduling deficiencies," said Clare Ann Fitzgerald, the authority's general counsel, so SSR was dismissed.
The authority in February invited companies to submit proposals for "constable services" or "the equivalent in certification or current training." Some said they were confused by that language, and weren't sure whether the authority was demanding bona fide constables or would settle for something similar.
The authority picked Victory Security, which offered to provide constables for $30.44 an hour for 3,360 hours a year. The authority would not reveal the price quotes of losing bidders, saying only that it weighed the companies' experience, capacity, fees, strategy, minority- and women-owned business participation and willingness to hire residents of low-income areas.
Victory Security's contract is more than $500,000 a year cheaper than SSR's was. It's unclear if any other bidder had a lower price.
"You have to look at more than just simply price," said Mr. Meachem, declining to detail the factors that led to Victory Security's hire.
"I think [Victory Security's edge] was me and the bid," said Constable Brian Van Dusen of the Hill District, who served as operations manager for the project until May 1. "Victory Security really had no idea what a constable was, what a constable did, how to find them. ... I brought the expertise and the manpower and the ability to operate the contract."
Mr. Van Dusen said he eventually realized some of the constables working under him were sending in their Daily Activity Reports hours before the ends of their shifts, making it impossible to verify they had worked the entire shift. He showed the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette electronic reports for eight-hour shifts that, according to the electronic file properties, were finalized two to four hours before shift's end. He said he reported it to Victory Security president Kathleen Bowman. She then "told me they don't need me anymore."
Ms. Bowman could not be reached for comment.
On the day he was fired, Mr. Van Dusen texted the authority's safety director, Joy Pekar-Miller, who oversees the contract. "Recently I have uncovered some very damaging information," he wrote to her in texts shared with the Post-Gazette. "I discovered over 35-50 instances of individuals lying on the DAR's & Sign in sheets." She responded, asking whether that was the reason for his firing, and he suggested that she pull the recent sign-in sheets.
The text thread, said authority Chief Community Affairs Officer Michelle Jackson on Friday, "doesn't give you any specifics. ... It doesn't give a time frame. And all of our invoices check out."
The allegation of false reporting, she said, "is very vague. It's like saying, 'The constables didn't show up.' Where? When?"
Some of the companies that bid on the contract but lost said it was never clear to them whether they had to commit to providing constables, or could line up similarly trained security guards.
Some said they didn't get due consideration from the authority. "We believe that our firm and management team had the ability to do this scope of work," said Joseph Diven of St. Moritz Security Services. "But unfortunately we were not brought in for the interview process."
Some security firms question whether the authority's use of constables has crossed legal lines.
Mr. Meachem said he's convinced the process and approach are valid. Constables, he said, are helping keep his tenants safe.
First Published May 29, 2012 12:00 am