CRANBERRY TWP — Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro met with multiple Butler County police departments Monday around a table in the Cranberry Township Municipal Center.
“I'm trying to see what chiefs and leaders are seeing in ... retention of officers,” Shapiro said.
The chiefs and officers attending included those from Cranberry Township, Evans City-Seven Fields Regional, Jackson Township, Adams Township and state police departments attended the meeting, as well as District Attorney Richard Goldinger.
Cranberry Chief Kevin Meyer said many departments have struggled with staffing, and he believes political tension revolving around the profession has made it difficult to fill and retain personnel.
“We know there's ebbs and flows, and we hope they come back to these jobs,” Meyer said.
Meyer said the image of the profession has been damaged in recent years, and current events continue to escalate those opinions. He cited the incidents involving George Floyd and Kyle Rittenhouse as examples.
Shapiro said he recognized that point, claiming he too is often pressured to speak on those matters, even in the early and vulnerable stages of investigation.
“I do believe facts matter and the law matters,” Shapiro said.
Shapiro said his focus currently is how he can advise legislators to angle funding to benefit police departments across the state. “What are some concrete ways we can ... change those attitudes?” Shapiro asked.
Multiple chiefs expressed interest in returning to more community-immersive patrols, like those by foot, which allow for regular contact with residents in a more casual manner.
Jackson Township Chief Terry Seilhamer said many departments are barely able to staff their routine patrols.
“A lot of places only have enough (funding) to hire 'X' number of officers,” Seilhamer said. “They don't have that luxury.”
Seilhamer said when the resident's sole interaction with officers is in tense situations, it leaves the door open for negative perceptions.
“When you're a faceless, nameless officer, they have no problem kicking sand in your face,” he said.
The chiefs also agreed that those “faces” are often changing between departments with many officers leaving for greener pastures, fuller contracts or better benefits.
Evans City-Seven Fields Regional Chief Joe McCombs said it is hard to lose an officer to another department, especially after making investments in their training, equipment and pay.
McCombs said his roster of officers has fallen from 16 a few years ago to eight this year. He said he also understands why a part-time officer would leave for a full-time position.
“It doesn't take people long to see you have a good officer,” McCombs said.
Shapiro acknowledged he heard similar concerns from his other meetings around the state. He posed some possible solutions and incentives to encourage officers to stay longer with one department.
One example was to cover some expenses typically incurred out-of-pocket by officers-in-training and in return, the officer would agree to stay for a certain number of years.
“We have to find a way to even out the funding to prevent officers from moving around,” Shapiro said.
One final talking point discussed the possibility of body cameras as a target for future grants and funding opportunities.
Many officers were open to the idea of the body cameras, but also said current grant programs typically only cover hardware. They said the heavier cost burden comes with the annual contract for cloud storage, costing tens of thousands of dollars.
Meyer said cost notwithstanding, body cameras can do great things for the image of police, making both sides more comfortable.
“I think it's a great tool,” Meyer said. “That'd be a good place for funding.”
Shaprio said he believed the departments he talked with Monday are in a good position to benefit from future funding opportunities. He said not all departments in the state have the level of cooperation from the municipalities he sees in the area.
“Many of the departments around here really seem to have their acts together and enjoy the relationship they have with their municipalities,” Shapiro said.