WHEELING - Across the United States, only 13 cities with 30,000 or fewer residents employ more sworn police officers than Wheeling's 83 budgeted positions, according to figures compiled by the FBI.
Despite pushback from police department leaders and some residents concerning City Manager Robert Herron's proposal to cut Wheeling's budget by almost 3 percent, in large part by eliminating 11 sworn officer positions from the budget, a review of the FBI's statistics shows many cities of Wheeling's size operate with smaller - sometimes much smaller - police departments.
Herron has said the plan - which includes no layoffs, as the department already has 10 vacancies which have gone unfilled, with the final cut to come through attrition - will save the city $826,000 this year and up to $1.1 million in future years.
Photo by Ian Hicks/Wheeling police cruisers are parked outside the City-County Building on Chapline Street at shift change.
The bureau notes the national average for police departments is 2.4 sworn officers for every 1,000 residents, and 1.7 per 1,000 residents in cities with populations between 25,000 and 49,999. Wheeling has 28,009 residents, according to the Census Bureau, so those figures would translate to a police department with 68 officers at the national average and one of just 48 at the rate for cities in Wheeling's population group.
With a full complement of 83 officers, Wheeling would have about three officers per 1,000 residents. Even at the proposed level of 72 officers, the city would remain above the national average at 2.6 per 1,000 and almost a full officer higher than the average rate for cities of its size. And several of the 13 cities of 30,000 or fewer who employ more officers than Wheeling are popular vacation destinations, including Myrtle Beach, S.C., Ocean City, Md., and Key West, Fla. Another, College Park, Ga., has an unusually high crime rate for a municipality of its size with 13 homicides in the city of 13,942 in 2008 alone, according to the FBI.
Herron said he took the FBI figures into consideration during his review of city operations leading up to his spending cut proposal.
"I wanted to make sure that we were in an acceptable range, and I believe that we are," Herron said of the city's officer-to-residents ratio.
But Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger said Wheeling isn't a typical small city, either, with its position on Interstate 70 and two other states just a few minutes' drive in either direction. Schwertfeger believes a ratio of three officers to every 1,000 residents is more than appropriate for a city on a major interstate highway.
He recalled a recent blitz operation by the federally organized Mountaineer Highway Interdiction Team, in which the Wheeling Police Department participates. During a four- to six-hour period in May, the operation netted seven drug-related arrests - only one of whom was from Wheeling, with others from Michigan, Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
"We keep hearing about Wheeling's population. But what about the metropolitan statistical area? What about all the people who come to Wheeling on a daily basis? This is a hub for medical care. This is a hub for a lot of things ... ," Schwertfeger said.
"Numbers are what they are. You can twist them however you want," he said. "I'm telling you as the chief for the last two years here, I need every bit of 80 police officers to do a progressive job."
Hilliard, Ohio, a city of 28,814 located just northwest of Columbus, employs 50 police officers, while Kent, Ohio, near Akron, employs 41 officers to protect its 28,933 residents. Cranberry Township, Pa., population 28,297, operates a police force with only 28 officers.
Cities of comparable size in West Virginia also have police departments smaller than Wheeling's. Parkersburg, a city of 31,558, employs 62 officers, while Morgantown has 66 officers for its 30,294 residents, with a separate West Virginia University police force providing protection for the college campus.
But those cities employ many more civilians than Wheeling in their police departments. According to the FBI, Parkersburg has eight non-uniformed police employees, while Morgantown has 11 - an important distinction, Schwertfeger said, adding having only three civilians, two full-time and one part-time, on staff means he's often forced to keep officers on station to do desk work.
"I have a lieutenant that's basically a quartermaster, a staff services position. Civilians can do that job," he said. "The big one is the front desk. Generally they are sergeants. They are quality sergeants, and I would prefer they be out in the field responding to calls with some of these younger, more inexperienced officers."
Nationally, civilians make up about 20 percent of total police department employees in cities in the 25,000-49,999 population range. Schwertfeger said he's presented a proposal to Herron that would involve hiring four civilians at an annual cost of about $125,000, including salary and benefits, who would perform tasks such as manning the front desk, analyzing crime data and serving as a liaison between the department and the media.
Herron said he will consider the chief's proposal, and he also wants to raise the pay scale for the 72 remaining positions at some point to combat a high rate of turnover within the department, but he's not ready to make any recommendations yet.
"We have to be very careful. We've identified some cost-reduction measures. We've got to be very careful when it comes to adding costs," he said.
Herron said the police department staffing level fell to 74 in January, and to 73 in April, where it has remained. Though the number fluctuates, he believes 81 has been the department's high point in the last two years.
Schwertfeger has said he's been operating under the assumption that the department's 10 vacancies would be a temporary situation, and he's been relying heavily on his officers working overtime to fill the void. He said he will wait until the cuts become permanent to make any changes to operations, but he said he can't continue asking his officers to work 50-hour weeks forever.
He said services such as funeral escorts and participation in programs such as as the Citizens' Police Academy are a big part of what makes Wheeling stand out as a quality place to live.
"At some point I'm going to have to pull back on things like that, and that's very unfortunate. ... Those are very beneficial times for interaction between the police and the community," he said. "Is the city going to fall apart? No. We have quality people and we will continue to do a quality job."