They wear uniforms, take the same risks and train to the standards of all Pennsylvania police officers.
Yet state records show about 28 percent of municipal police officers who patrol communities in Western Pennsylvania are employed part time, making $10.50 to $16 an hour with no health benefits.
Since 2011, three of them died on duty and a fourth is paralyzed from the waist down from a bullet wound.
In the most recent casualty, St. Clair Officer Lloyd Reed Jr. died Nov. 28 when he was shot while answering a domestic abuse call in the Westmoreland County mountain community of New Florence.
Reed, 54, a part-time officer for three decades, worked an average of 32 hours a week and had no benefits, officials said.
State and federal death benefits can take months to process, so the Western Pennsylvania Police Benevolent Foundation is raising money to help Reed’s family shoulder the burden of his burial. Reed and his wife, Rosemarie, were married for 15 years.
“It’s unfortunate,” said Don Hess, a retired police chief who teaches aspiring cops at the Municipal Police Academy at Westmoreland County Community College.
Hess, who has logged more than 40 years in law enforcement, said budgetary constraints prompted many communities to hire part-time officers. Those positions, often filled by those aspiring to full-time law enforcement careers, are every bit as dangerous as full-time police work.
“The Grim Reaper has no compunction about taking a human life, so full time or part time, police are trained to the same level,” Hess said.
Scott Bailey, who works part time for Aspinwall and another community and full time at a third police department, knows the hazards of police work won’t discriminate based on employment status.
“I’ve been hit or run over by cars at least eight times in my career,” he said.
Bailey, 45, of West Deer, a father of two teenage sons with autism, said his elder son, Trevor, 17, watched the news about Reed’s death with apprehension.
“My wife always says that both (Trevor) and Trent stay up at night until I come home,” Bailey said.
Bailey is among five part-time and six full-time officers patrolling Aspinwall. The borough’s $16 hourly wage for part-time officers puts it at the top of the pay range for such jobs.
“It’s a tough existence,” Aspinwall police Chief David Caplan said. “These guys are scraping together, piece by piece, to make a living. It’s not just a function of how much they make, it’s a function of how many hours we can give them.”
‘FULL-TIME PART TIME’
Statewide, 20 percent of those employed as municipal police officers work part time. That figure is well in excess of the national norm, which a 2008 Department of Justice report pegged at 5.4 percent.
Allegheny Township police Chief John Fontaine, who is past president of the Westmoreland County Chiefs of Police Association, said many departments couldn’t survive without part-time officers.
Fontaine said Allegheny Township pays part-time officers $15 an hour and relies on them to help cover shifts in the sprawling Alle-Kiski Valley community that has eight full-time officers.
“The part-timers are invaluable,” Fontaine said. “We have some that I call ‘full-time part time.’ They are basically working 50 to 60 hours a week, in two or three places, trying to feed a family.”
Pay varies from one community to the next.
In West Newton, a borough of 2,600 along the Youghiogheny River, part-time officers start at $10.50 an hour. The hourly rate increases to $12 when they complete 1,600 hours of service.
State Sen. Jim Brewster, D-McKeesport, worries that low wages eventually will deplete the pool of candidates departments rely on to fill such jobs.
Brewster twice introduced legislation to put a $10 surcharge on traffic tickets to set up a fund that communities could tap to pay part-time officers $15 an hour.
But even that may not be enough to ensure a consistent number of recruits.
When his son insisted on becoming a cop, Hess said he tried to discourage him.
“He became an officer in Montgomery County, Maryland. It’s a large county police agency. He was covered by all benefits when he went into the academy and that continued when he went out on the street. That’s just common sense,” Hess said.
Garrett Trent of Greensburg, a recent graduate of the Westmoreland County Community College Municipal Police Academy, also has a bachelor’s degree from Mercyhurst University in Erie.
Trent, 22, said many of his classmates are accepting part-time work in law enforcement, but he plans to relocate to Central Pennsylvania with the hope of finding a full-time position with a larger municipal force.
Les Neri, president of the Pennsylvania Fraternal Order of Police, said municipal consolidation, regionalized police departments or contracting police services from communities with full-time officers would allow smaller communities to move away from part-time policing and provide strong police candidates.
“It’s something we’ve been promoting for years,” Neri said.