Council president says part-timers will be hired; former chief recommends full-timers
By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times
In 2008, former Chester County District Attorney Joseph W. Carroll issued a public plea to Coatesville residents, urging them to overhaul a government that had allowed dangerously inadequate police staffing.
Four years later, in response to two city homicides in four days and a police force that has been shrinking, Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan issued a similar warning.
“The best way to prevent these street homicides is to have a visible and active police patrol presence,” said Hogan. “The Coatesville PD lacks sufficient officers right now to provide that patrol presence … I am calling on the leadership of the City of Coatesville to provide a sufficient number of police officers to keep the residents of Coatesville safe.”
Six officers took an early-retirement option in May, including Chief Julius M. Canale, who has continued to work on a day-to-day contract. At least two officers are on paid leave, and at least one is out on medical disability. City officials said this week that 26 officers remain on active duty. Five of them have pending lawsuits alleging discrimination, court records show.
Hogan said numerous formulas exist for determining the appropriate size of a police force, many of which rely primarily on population. Coatesville poses challenges that go beyond a calculation tied to its 13,100 residents, Hogan said, adding that 26 officers creates a safety concern regardless of the formula.
He suggested that the best analysis of the city’s needs should come from someone with respected experience assessing them. “I would defer to former Chief Bellizzie’s judgement” to determine that number, Hogan said.
Dominic P. Bellizzie, an ex-Philadelphia Police captain who now serves as police chief in Buck’s County’s Solebury Township, gained accolades when he headed Coatesville’s department from 2002 to 2006.
He left the post because he said he got tired of hearing rumors that his job was on the line during a particularly tumultuous period of city government. “Solebury Township’s gain is Chester County’s loss,” Carroll said at the time.
In a phone interview yesterday, Bellizzie said he was saddened to hear of Coatesville’s recurring problems. He recalled starting the job with a force of 30. “I was asked what I needed,” he said, adding that he immediately requested more officers. “You need at least 34 or 35,” he said.
Filling in with part-time officers, a plan that City Council initiated last month, sounds like “a nice idea, but it’s very unreliable,” Bellizzie said. He pointed out that not only do part-timers lack an investment in the department, but they also typically work elsewhere, sometimes making them unavailable when needed.
Bellizzie said that a part-time officer might be involved in a case, which then gets interrupted due to that person’s limited hours. “Suddenly the officer isn’t there, and then the public gets annoyed,” he said. “It’s not a good solution.”
He said now that City Council has fired Gary Rawlings, the city manager who advocated reducing the size of the department, perhaps it will rethink the wisdom of reducing the police ranks. “Certainly public safety should be a priority,” he said. “If you want to bring in development, you can’t have a homicide on every other corner.”
Council President Ed Simpson said today that the city is moving as quickly as possible to return the department to its pre-retirement staffing level with part-timers.
Asked whether he viewed that as a temporary fix, Simpson said: “What difference does it make? They’re just as qualified as full-time officers; I don’t see an issue.”
Told that some might disagree, Simpson said tersely: “That’s their opinion.”
On Monday night, Alex E. Davis, a 2002 Downingtown High graduate, was fatally shot as he was driving on Belmont Avenue. Authorities said his vehicle crossed South Sixth Avenue and hit a chain-link fence between two homes.
On Friday, police said Dominique Williams, 22, was fatally shot about 12:15 a.m. during a home invasion at a residence in the 700 block of Merchant Street. Hogan said DNA was recovered at the scene and investigators are pursuing “strong leads.”
In the meantime, the police department continues to be plagued with litigation. A suit filed in September seeks compensatory and punitive damages for minority Officers Carlo F. McKinnie of Drexel Hill, Miguel A. Ortiz of Philadelphia, Jose Colon of Coatesville and Sylvester D. Earle of Lancaster. They allege that an atmosphere of discrimination exists in the department, where racial slurs are routine and white officers get preferential treatment.
A suit filed last month by Coatesville Cpl. Larry Cooper expands on accusations of racial discrimination. Cooper’s suit contends that Police Chief Julius M. Canale ignored a recommendation that four white officers involved in a 2006 sex scandal be fired.
Instead, the four officers, who were implicated with the brother of one and a former colleague who transferred from the department, became known as “the Dirty Half-Dozen” for their ability to escape punishment, the suit said. It said the four officers, who reportedly paid $25,000 in a settlement with the alleged victim, were all promoted after the incident.
Anyone with information about either of this week’s homicides is asked to call Chester County Detectives at 610-344-5100 or Coatesville detectives at 610-384-2300.