This space has been used on several occasions to call on the Wilkes-Barre City administration, police chief and rank-and-file officers to hash out their differences and end the acrimony that has perforated the city’s thin blue line under Mayor Tony George’s tenure.
In that light, declaring the authorization of an outside review of the situation an encouraging first step should hardly come as a surprise.
As reported by Jerry Lynott, City Council voted Thursday to hire the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association to conduct an independent review, expected to be completed in 10 weeks at a cost of $26,212.
There is merit to the criticism of chronic critic Bob Kadluboski, who railed against spending the money when the city is so cash strapped. It would seem sensible to expect this in-house spat could be settled with some in-house conversation and compromise.
Which means that, as this effort moves forward, close scrutiny of the review process is needed. The recommendations and the response to them should be considered by the public with a gimlet eye. Caution is well warranted; Wilkes-Barre taxpayers can ill afford neither a slipshod job that gives ineffective advice nor a politically self-serving rejection of valid ideas on this front.
But police protection is no place to pinch pennies; quite the contrary, having an effective, coordinated and focused police force is one of the most essential services any city government must provide. Without it, the city risks both short-term catastrophe and long-term decline.
But there is an even more potent argument for spending a bit more than $26,000 on this: The city has been spilling far more money into police-related legal costs in the last two years. Records show the city paid lawyers and arbitrators about $78,000 last year, and more than $38,000 this year as of Aug. 31.
The fact that both sides keep blaming the other is reason enough to bring in a third party. The fact that these costs have soared since George took office is a potent argument justifying that need. If 26 grand brings solutions that reduce litigation and grievance costs, it will pay for itself.
The true value of the review, of course, will only be known after the fact, but the written proposal submitted by the Association is encouraging. It promises extensive interviews, data collection and analysis, surveys, and scrutiny of department directives and documents, all preceding recommendations in a report that both sides can read and respond to before it is finalized.
City Councilman Bill Barrett, a former police chief himself, arguably gave the best argument for the review in voicing his support.
“It’s very painful, I agree with you, to watch what has been going on,” Barrett said. “It pains all of us. It especially pains me having been a member of that department for 28 years and see the department be dysfunctional as it is right now. For whatever reasons it is.”
“Painful,” indeed. Here’s hoping the review unearths the reasons and solutions.