Catty council follows up on police report
BY SAMANTHA ANDERSON
On Jan. 29, Catasauqua Borough Council held a special meeting regarding the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development peer-to-peer management report for Catasauqua Borough Police Department.
David Steffen, retired police chief of Northern Lancaster Regional Police Department and peer consultant, shared the results of his report at the Jan. 16 regular council meeting. The special meeting was intended as a follow-up and allowed council members to ask Steffen questions about his report.
Council members wanted to gather as much information as they could before moving forward to address some of the concerns and deficiencies noted in Steffen’s 93-page report, so they all took turns asking Steffen questions.
Councilwoman Jill Smerdon asked if there was a recommended timeline for next steps. Steffen said that would depend on exactly what they are looking to address. He said they should decide what aspects they want to tweak or change and make a plan including benchmark points. He noted the DCED can offer some assistance if needed.
In response to Steffen’s statement that he was receiving conflicting information from different people within the department, Councilwoman Virginia Schlegel asked Steffen if he asked around for more information when this happened. He said there were constraints in who and what he was able to ask, but digging around and pushing for information were beyond the scope of his assignment.
He was tasked with creating the report based off what he saw. He noted he was able to get a “pretty clear picture” of how things were running within the department based on the policy and financial analysis he performed.
Another concern Steffen had noted in his report was the potential for Monell exposures. After the Monell v. Department of Social Services court case, municipal governing bodies can be held liable for bad acts of the local police department. He said he believed the borough is at risk of this exposure if anything were to happen.
While the department does use a management system, Steffen noted it could be used more efficiently. He also noted the department has policies in place, but some of them are outdated or not finalized. Taking steps to clean up, update, finalize and standardize the policies and procedures could help protect the department and the borough and allow for more ease in training and educating officers.
He noted there may be more training and procedures in place that just were not made clear to him or given to him when asked. He could only create his report based off what he was given, he said.
He recommended critical policies be updated more regularly, updating the policies to all include issue and review dates, having a system to ensure all the officers receive and understand the policies and having someone take ownership of the policies. He noted some of these factors are present for some policies, but he recommended standardizing the policy process across the board, based off best practices. He noted accountability is important within the department and its leadership.
He did report noting some changes and movement within the department since the time he finished and filed his report.
Councilwoman Tara Nicholas confirmed with Steffen the department does not have a strategic plan in place for the future. He noted no such plan was shared with him.
In regard to his concerns about scheduling, he recommended someone else, such as the borough manager or mayor, take over responsibility for the scheduling issue. He also shared his concern about the structure of shifts in needing to comply with the collective bargaining agreement.
He also recommended updating the website to encourage more community engagement and input.
Mayor Barbara Schlegel reported there has been talk about possibly regionalizing the police force with North Catasauqua since she was a member of council in the 1990s. Steffen noted some work would have to be done to update some of the concerns before regionalizing if that was the route the borough was interested in exploring.
Virginia Schlegel also shared her concern about the public reaction and information being shared with the community about the report. She noted there has been a lot of negativity put out in the community, but urged the residents to come together for the betterment of the borough.
Councilman Eugene Schlegel said he believes public safety is paramount and stressed the importance of having more, not less, police protection in the borough.
Councilwoman Kim Brubaker reported council is trying to be proactive and wants to work with the police department for the betterment of the community.
Moving forward, Steffen suggested forming a committee including members of council, the borough manager, police department, the community and members of the collective bargaining unit. This committee can help create a strategic plan for the next two, five and 10 years with measurable outcomes.
They can discuss and prioritize what changes or areas to address. He noted the Pennsylvania Law Enforcement Accreditation Commission’s standards manual is available online to help guide the committee in what specific changes might be needed. He also recommended working with the borough solicitor and insurance company to help prioritize concerns.
He said the goal of the committee would not be to point fingers or place blame. It would be a place for them to come together and collaborate on ways to fix any problems.
In response to one public comment, Virginia Schlegel urged community members to be more involved in these processes and stressed the importance of transparency and community engagement.
One resident questioned when the collective bargaining agreement is up for renewal. Her concern is the scheduling issues will not be addressed for another year or two. Barbara Schlegel reported overtime is already down in the department.
The resident also cautioned against the borough making a change to state police coverage. She noted her time as an EMT demonstrated a local police force is a better way to go for the borough.
Sean O’Boyle, a member of the Civil Service Commission, also recommended against regionalizing. He also shared his concerns with overtime scheduling coming from the police union.
In response to Boyle’s suggestion to use the Civil Service Commission members to help with some of the issues, borough Manager Glenn Eckhart reported hiring has been a problem, so they haven’t had to use the commission. Eckhart reported he has been pushing to hire more officers for a few years to help ease the burden of scheduling and overtime on the department, which only has 10 full-time officers and a handful of part-time officers.
According to Eckhart, he has been trying to recruit but added the hiring process is not being done properly and in a timely manner, causing them to lose candidates, despite having raised the part-time officer salary.
Donald Stratton, Catasauqua police officer, took time to defend the department.
“We do have standards, procedures and policies in place,” he said, noting they undergo proper training and get tested on the policies in the police department management system.
He also defended some of the overtime shifts, noting they simply do not have enough officers to cover all the shifts, so overtime is needed to make sure there is coverage.
It was noted there has been a lot of public comment from people who have not actually read the report, exaggerating the findings of the DCED report. As Steffen said in the past, there are problems, but they are fixable.
The proverbial sky is not falling for Catasauqua Police Department.
Frederick Chapman, a DCED local government policy specialist, noted the group has already worked closely with Eckhart and council President Howard Cunningham on the borough’s strategic management plan. He reported that since the borough is still in phase one, some of the recommended changes might fall under that umbrella and some assistance might be available.
“We’re here for you,” Chapman said, asking council to consider DCED a partner.
He urged them to reach out during the implementation phase to see if DCED can offer any assistance or support.