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Pa. police leaders say part-time work is harder to find

The (Scranton) Times-Tribune
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MOOSIC, Pa. — Late-morning traffic rolled along near the bend in the pavement where Lonesome Road ends and the borough’s Main Street begins, an area neighbors often raise with the local police as rife with speeders.

To deter them, Officer Matthew Brown sat in his patrol vehicle at the end of Stonecrest Drive on Thursday, the gray SUV a silent warning to slow down.

“I’m a big traffic enforcement guy, that’s just what I like doing,” Brown said. “It’s an important task.”

Brown, 32, joined Moosic’s police force in October as a part-time officer, a position area officials say is becoming increasingly difficult to staff.

“We pay them significantly less than we do a full-timer, even though they’re doing the same job,” Brown said.

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Local law enforcement officials say they believe a more robust full-time job market opened up by a recent wave of retirements and an overall more hostile climate toward policing have led to a shortage of part-time police officers. Many area police departments have historically relied on the part-timers to staff shifts and keep expenses low.

“It’s a huge problem,” South Abington Twp. Police Chief Robert Gerrity said. “Every department I’ve spoken to is having a difficult time.”

In South Abington, the township employs 14 police officers. Most of those, including Gerrity, work full time but part-timers help staff shifts. If a part-time officer is not available, that shift still needs to be filled and the department would have to pay overtime to a full-time officer to work it.

Part-time officers are becoming harder to hold onto as retirements open up a wider market of full-time positions, he said. Eventually, police departments and communities that rely on part-time officers may need to hire more full-timers, or explore regionalizing, he said.

In the last month, two of his part-time officers left the department for full-time positions. Gerrity said he can’t fault them — they are advancing their careers — but he is down to four part-time positions where even just three years ago he had 10.

Gerrity and other officials say they believe the increased public scrutiny of law enforcement in the wake of police killings of Black men may deter people from seeking a career in the field.

“People paint a broad brush that all police are murderers,” he said. “I think, quite frankly, it’s discouraging.”

He said he has not received an application for a part-time position in more than a year, something that has never happened before.

“It’s not just an issue for me,” Gerrity said.

Dickson City Police Chief William Bilinski said outside of Northeast Pennsylvania, part-time police officers are becoming a “position of the past.”

“You get outside in Northeast PA and in some places it’s unheard of,” he said. “It’s all full-time.”

Last month, the Valley View School District said it would explore hiring its own trained and armed school resource officers rather than employ full-time officers from the Archbald Police Department. Police Chief Tim Trently proposed replacing the district’s three part-time officers with two full-time officers because finding and retaining new part-time officers is such a challenge.

“It’s a constant turnaround of part-timers coming in,” Trently said. “We train them...the whole works and then they go get a full-time job.”

He too could not fault anyone for wanting to move on. But he said they’d likely have an easier time retaining an officer they already spent the money to train if they hired more full-timers — which he said has received some resistance because full-time officers are more expensive than part-timers.

“Money,” he said. “You look at the size of Archbald Borough, there’s a lot of services provided, not only the police. You got the (Department of Public Works), you got the administration...Everybody needs a piece of the pie.”

John Chilleri, director of the Lackawanna College Police Academy, rebuffed that there’s a local lack of interest in law enforcement. He said their academy’s class sizes have remained steady — even through the COVID-19 pandemic when the academy closed for in-person learning between March and June last year, and their program used online training to keep their cadets engaged.

Their most recent class, convened in March, has 24 cadets enrolled and a class in January graduated 23, he said.

“Class numbers haven’t changed that much,” Chilleri said. “The interest is still there.”

However, people graduate and want to work full-time, he said.

“The question is where are they going?” he said.

Some cadets attend the academy sponsored by a police agency with which they have already secured employment, but “the majority” of graduates need jobs, Chilleri said. Generally, the academy has not kept track of where they go, but he said that is an area the college “wants to have a better picture of.”

Like Gerrity, Chilleri said addressing the shortage of part-times would likely mean seeking more full-time police officers or combining different departments into a regional police force.

“I don’t know,” Moosic Police Chief Richard Janesko said when asked about police regionalization. “In some of the smaller communities, maybe. ...You would have to get everybody involved.”

Chilleri said he is not “talking the towns down that do it part-time,” because he said he knows they’re merely trying to provide a service, but eventually there may come a moment to consider pooling resources.

“The time is going to come where somebody is going to need to address that,” Chilleri said.

Brown, who has worked in law enforcement since 2009, in full-time and part-time jobs, said he is working part-time while exploring options. He said he intends to stay in law enforcement, a vocation he’s always been drawn to and takes pride in.

“I always wanted to do something that when I looked back and I retired I said, ‘hey, I did something in my career that made a difference,’” Brown said. “Something that helps someone at some point, whether it was a one-minute thing, over the course of 30 years, at least I could say that when I put my head down at the end of my career.”