Training Never Stops
li Stawowczyk picks up extra shifts whenever she can. That means sometimes working long days, but she doesn’t care. She wants to learn from as many of her colleagues as possible so that she can be the best police officer she can be for the residents of Mt. Lebanon.
More than a year after she first tested for the job, Stawowczyk recently became one of the newest members of the Mt. Lebanon Police Department. It’s a job that she’s wanted since she was in high school.
“I’ve always wanted to help people,” said Stawowczyk, 25, a patrol officer in Mt. Lebanon and an officer in the Army National Guard. “It’s still very exciting. Everything is still very new.”
After spending nearly a year in training—from the police academy to in-the-field training in Mt. Lebanon—she was confident as she stepped out for her first solo call on May 31.
“I definitely learned a lot,” she said of the training she received. Not everything was as she expected. Every call was different. But she always looks for ways to solve problems and help those in need. “Obviously, I know that I’m not going to learn everything right away,” she said.
“But I want to take all the opportunities that I can to better prepare myself.”
In the last several months, the Mt. Lebanon Police Department has hired five new officers who are currently in training.
Training can last up to 10 months if an officer needs Pennsylvania Act 120 certification which establishes the basic requirements to become an entry-level police officer in the state. Officers who don’t have Act 120 certification spend as many as five months at the Allegheny County Police Training Academy, where they learn everything from criminal procedures to vehicle code to emergency driving and CPR. All new hires go through Mt. Lebanon’s field training program as probationary officers, learning local policies and answering calls alongside one of the department’s senior officers. This lasts between three and five months.
But the investment is worth it.
“You’re working with this person for the next 25 years,” said field training supervisor Pat O’Brien. “They’re going to be a representative of Mt. Lebanon. Everything they do is going to affect the community. It’s going to affect the police department and it’s going to affect safety, too.”
Stawowczyk was drawn to Mt. Lebanon because of the community. The business districts and walkable neighborhoods remind her of where she grew up in eastern Pennsylvania.
Another draw for her was that the Mt. Lebanon Police Department hires officers without Act 120 certification and pays to put them through the academy—a perk not many departments in the area offer. In the last five years, O’Brien said the department has seen a steep increase in candidates who lack Act 120 certification. Many candidates these days are fresh out of college.
Across the nation, many police departments are facing a hiring crisis. Fewer people today want to enter the field than they did 20 or 30 years ago.
“I don’t think you can deny the fact that currently assaults and violence against police officers are up,” Acting Police Chief Jason Haberman said.
According to FBI statistics, 60,105 law enforcement officers were assaulted while performing their duties in 2020, an increase of 4,071 from assaults reported in 2019.
“To say that’s not a factor would be overlooking the obvious.,” Haberman said. “The obvious is, police officers are concerned. There’s a concern for safety. There’s a concern for being the victim of violence, for being targeted…. And it’s more and more difficult with the job market the way it is.”
While this has remained a problem in much of the country, Mt. Lebanon still has seen a good number of applicants, Haberman said. For their latest round of testing this April, the department received 120 applications. However, only 65 showed up for the test, which leaders said was an anomaly.
In an effort to draw a larger, more diverse pool of candidates, Mt. Lebanon lowered its application fee two years ago from $50 to $25. The department advertises “as far and as wide as possible,” Haberman said, utilizing a wide array of channels to try and get the most diverse group of applicants.
What makes Mt. Lebanon enticing to many is the opportunity officers have throughout their career to branch out, Haberman said. Putting candidates through the police academy is another way to attract more diverse applicants.
“You can do pretty much anything you want here, with traffic units, investigations, community outreach,” O’Brien said. That variety helps the department retain officers, because they never get bored on the job.
The department also relies on the high caliber of its officers and Mt. Lebanon residents to draw in candidates.
“You’re serving a high-quality community, in addition to serving with high-caliber officers,” Haberman said. “Whenever you’re evaluating police jobs, you want jobs that offer good equipment, good training and you want a job that offers opportunity.”
Mt. Lebanon requires police officers to have a four-year degree. The practice allows the makeup of the department to mirror the residents they serve, which, leaders say, is vital in this line of work. According to the latest U.S. Census, 70 percent of Mt. Lebanon residents age 25 or older have at least a bachelor’s degree.
Because of this requirement, Mt. Lebanon is competing with public sector jobs, as well.
“We are a government entity, we’re limited on some of the incentives that we can provide,” Haberman said. “We can’t do signing bonuses, per se. However, the industry is looking at a lot of different (incentives)…. things that we constantly look at and evaluate to see if those are things that we need to do.”
The latest round of testing for Mt. Lebanon’s open patrol officer positions were in early April. Candidates took written and physical tests. From there, candidates with the top 25 written scores moved on to a panel interview.
The panel looks for character first.
“At the end of the day, what we found is if you find good character, high-quality people, you can train them to be good police officers,” Haberman said. “We’re a service-oriented department. They have to know that.”
“We offer a lot of training”
Once officers are given a conditional offer of employment, the department conducts extensive background checks. We’re talking about stopping by a former neighbor’s house and contacting a variety of people from an officer’s past. This part of the process is taken very seriously in Mt. Lebanon, Haberman said.
Then, the training begins.
“It’s almost like there’s a Y in the road at this point,” Cpl. Jeff Kite said.
Officers without Act 120 certification head to the academy, where they learn alongside others from across Allegheny County. The academy focuses on state laws and scenario-based training. Officers must receive their certification before they can go out on the road. Officers with the certification go straight to field training.
All officers go through field training before they’re ready to patrol on their own.
“The people who make it through definitely have enough knowledge base to help the residents here,” Stawowczyk said. “It’s well known around here that we have a very hard FTO (Field Training Officer) program.”
The field training program in Mt. Lebanon is broken down into several phases and takes, on average, about four months to complete.
Officers spend their first eight days on the job working alongside their FTO. FTOs are often corporals trained in teaching others. During the initial phase, new officers learn all about Mt. Lebanon. They tour each school, get to know the business districts and neighborhoods and go over use of force, firearms, defense tactics and local geography.
“We want them to get to know the town,” O’Brien said.
Next, they enter Step 1 of training, where they spend about 20 working days paired with an FTO in uniform. The trainee is initially responsible for handling about 25 percent of all calls, while their FTO trains them how to handle various situations. Each probationary officer must complete eight to 10 training tasks during each step, which include everything from criminal procedures to municipal ordinances and how to tackle calls dealing with mental health.
Once the probationary officer has proficiency in each task, their FTO will give them the go-ahead to proceed. The FTOs conduct daily observation reports, where they type up as many as four pages detailing everything the officer learned that day. Each night, the probationary officer is given homework, of sorts, to show they’re learning.
Probationary officers only move on to the next step when they’re ready. Step 2 is another 20 working days, and probationary officers are responsible for about 60 percent of the workload upon completion of that step.
“We try to get them used to calls and also being the primary contact officer for more,” O’Brien said.
If a probationary officer is struggling, the department will set up a training plan to help the officer succeed.
“We’ll see what they’re having problems with, then we’ll come up with training and do scenarios,” O’Brien said. “If he or she is having problems driving, we’ll set up courses. We will give them the tools to succeed.”
By the end of the field training program, probationary officers are able to handle 100 percent of a call.
Stawowczyk said she felt ready to be a full-fledged officer when that time arrived. Still, she knows who to call if she has any questions.
As for training: “It never stops,” O’Brien said.
Mt. Lebanon officers are training their entire career to learn new policies and procedures.
“We have monthly trainings,” he said.
To keep current training changes, as well.
“We’ll bring in other agencies for de-escalation techniques,” O’Brien said. Scenario-based training, or training that puts the officers in a mock scene and requires them to make a decision, has increased over the years, as has de-escalation training.
“Things that would have taken maybe 10 minutes 20 years ago now take three hours,” he said. “That’s what you have to get through their head, through talking to people you can calm down a situation, it just might take a little more time.”