Most Mt. Lebanon residents will tell you that they live here because it is a safe community. Statistics bear that out—Mt. Lebanon police officers consistently close cases and a look at the department’s annual reports (available at www.pd.mtlebanon.org) shows that from year to year criminal activity in the community has not increased significantly (and in some cases has even decreased). But let’s face it, most of us have no idea what goes on in a police department outside what we see on TV dramas and maybe during traffic stops that we’ve been unfortunate enough to have to endure. Last year Mt. Lebanon commissioners decided to remedy this lack of information by conducting a police mission review.
Commissioners Matt Kluck and Kristen Linfante, Municipal Manager Steve Feller and Police Chief Coleman McDonough made up the committee. Their goal was to explore how the police department currently works, how it is organized, how it achieves results and what needs to be done to ensure future success.
To start, a survey was sent to 1,000 randomly selected Mt. Lebanon houses; 172 complete and 62 partially complete surveys were returned. Respondents answered 10 questions on topics ranging from experiences they had with the police department to the biggest police-related issues in their neighborhood to what they would change about the department.
In general, the responses were positive and show, as McDonough says, “the people in this community value the police department and the professionalism of the agency.” The survey suggests to McDonough, however, that that the public needs a better understanding of the police department services and procedures. For instance, a number of survey respondents questioned the need for two or more police cars at a “simple” traffic stop. A second police officer—whichever is closest to the first car—always responds to provide backup, as it is impossible to predict what may happen at a traffic stop. On the other hand, traffic stops can be pretty complicated. At an incident last year, for instance, passing drivers likely wondered why five police cars were needed for what appeared to be a ran-the-red-light stop. In fact, when the car was pulled over, the driver had pulled out a gun and threatened to shoot himself.
For McDonough, the response to the question “If you have a problem with an employee of the MLPD, how confident are you that you can contact the department and be treated fairly?” was one of the most important on the survey. “Residents have to know that they will be treated fairly and will get a fair hearing if they have a personnel complaint,” he says. The survey showed that 35 percent of respondents indicated they were “very confident,” 25.2 percent “extremely confident” and 25.7 “moderately confident” that they would be treated fairly, but McDonough believes the department should strive to improve those percentages.
After the survey was completed, the committee convened a focus group of external stakeholders. Facilitated by SHACOG Director Lou Gorski, it included board members from Mt. Lebanon’s traffic and community relations boards, the district magistrate, the Bethel Park police chief and representatives from local assisted living facilities, the District Attorney’s Office, Outreach Teen & Family Services, Mt. Lebanon School District and Fire Department, Medical Rescue Team South, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas, St. Clair Hospital and experienced defense and civil attorneys. Participants discussed four questions focusing on the future of law enforcement. They also reviewed the department’s strengths/weaknesses/opportunities/threats and made suggestions about how the police department could improve its collaboration with the organizations represented.
Finally, police officers and police department staff completed an internal survey to gauge job satisfaction and their needs in the areas of support, training, technology and equipment.
McDonough reports the mission review achieved its number one goal: to educate the commission about the police department’s current operations and future needs.
Other important goals—educating the public about the police department and educating police about public expectations—will take longer. “That’s where we go from here,” McDonough says. “We have taken the citizens comments to heart and are educating our officers and employees as to what the community wants from us.”