In the aftermath of the fatal police shooting of unarmed, black 17-year-old Antwon Rose in a municipality adjacent to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, much discussion has focused on the inadequacies of the municipality’s police department. Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala reportedly described a “lack of [police] policies and procedures in East Pittsburgh” that may have played a role in Rose’s death.
Last January Michael Rosfeld, the man who killed Rose and who has since been charged with criminal homicide, left his previous job with the University of Pittsburgh police after he filed a report, later determined to be false, that resulted in the arrest of three young men. Lee Merritt, the Rose family attorney, argues that Rosfeld’s abuse of authority was not an isolated incident. Many have questioned why East Pittsburgh hired this officer with his questionable record.
One answer is that they may not be able to afford any better.
Smaller municipalities in the state compete with their wealthier neighbors in attracting the best public servants. According to a 2018 article in the Tribune Review, the City of Pittsburgh pays starting officers $44,710 per year, while Bethel Park, a suburb to the south with a higher median income, pays $63,647. Starting salaries can go much lower in poorer municipalities, where several police departments are staffed by part-time officers. When a municipality like East Pittsburgh, where more than 26 percent of residents live below the poverty line (a rate more than double the county average), chooses to pay for a municipal police department, it is making a choice to forgo free coverage from the state police and to spend money that could be used for other community services. It’s a trend mirrored across the country: Communities coast to coast are diverting funds that could be used for social services to policing. Reversing this trend is one of the demands of the Movement for Black Lives.
East Pittsburgh is not alone in this tense financial situation. A 2017 report found that municipalities in Southwestern Pennsylvania suffer under serious financial distress. In one stark finding, the report showed that municipalities that pay for their own police departments had on average twice the tax burden as those that rely on the free default policing from the state or county. Many municipalities that pay for their own policing are struggling to support themselves, which often leads to poor public services and community-health outcomes.
Part of the challenge is the sheer number of discrete municipalities. Allegheny County’s 745 square miles boast 130 municipalities (some as small as .16 square miles) with 118 independent municipal police departments. East Pittsburgh is in the Mon Valley, an area spanning three counties east and south of Pittsburgh. With 38 municipalities across its 140 square miles, this area, formerly an unrivaled manufacturing hotspot, is now a collection of disparate communities struggling to survive in a postindustrial economic landscape.
Defaulting to Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) protection, critics say, would result in longer response times. Additionally, state police officers are not assigned to a specific municipality but to an area of the state containing several municipalities, WHYY reports. As such, they cannot enforce local ordinances such as parking restrictions and don’t respond to EMS or fire calls. They argue that PSP wouldn’t be able to provide the depth of community engagement desired by many municipalities. Defaulting to state policing, however, is not the only way to alleviate municipalities’ budgetary strain.
Consolidation of smaller municipalities (those with populations under 5,000), if done right, could more evenly distribute the tax burden and eliminate redundant spending, ideally improving the quality of public-service provision. Consolidation could also provide opportunities for increased transparency and citizen oversight. In Allegheny County, activists are currently pushing for a countywide civilian police-review board to create accountability across the more than 100 municipalities. Based on the county’s home-rule charter, however, municipal participation in and compliance with a county police-review board would be voluntary, which could challenge the goal of countywide police transparency and accountability. Municipal mergers could be an important legal tool in working toward that goal. Municipal mergers, however, often face significant political opposition, the roots of which, in Allegheny County, can be traced back to the role of industry in establishing these many communities.
Andrew Carnegie opened the valley’s first mill in 1875 in Braddock. Other industrialists followed suit, and the steel industry exploded into life in the Mon Valley. To the eyes of industry, the geography of the Mon Valley could hardly have been better. The valley was flush with natural resources like coal, limestone, and some iron ore, as well as three highly navigable rivers. Pittsburgh, already a formidable manufacturing town to the north, offered both a growing concentration of capital and a population of skilled industrial workers.
With each plant came its own community, with “all the necessities (if few amenities) needed to sustain a permanent workforce,” writes historian John Hoerr. The Mon Valley’s major mill towns, Homestead, Braddock, Duquesne, McKeesport, and Clairton, sprung into existence. The population of Braddock increased 1,400 percent from 1870 to 1910. McKeesport’s population grew by 730 percent in just half that time, earning the designation of the nation’s fastest-growing community. These mill towns were soon joined by suburbs and river communities, among them Munhall, East Pittsburgh, Turtle Creek, Glassport, West Mifflin, White Oak, and Wilmerding, that provided services that augmented the existing industrial infrastructure. With the arrival of steel, Hoerr writes, 1870s entrepreneurs essentially “[jammed] an industrial revolution down the throat of a beautiful river valley.” This became the era of intense smog, earning Pittsburgh the nickname “Smoky City,” and the same could be said of its neighboring mill towns.
Despite poor living standards, including long hours, low wages, bleak conditions, and anti-unionism, residents of these mill towns felt intense civic pride. Communal identity crystallized around industrial production and competition. At the time, the region’s political and social fragmentation served the steel-baron mill owners. Hoerr writes, “Carnegie, Frick, and later US Steel established a social and political culture of control in the Mon Valley,” by exploiting community identity to pin municipalities against each other. Industry was deeply embedded in the valley’s social, economic, and cultural identity; this is only partly reflected in the extent to which companies owned the valley’s very land. On the eve of deindustrialization, US Steel property accounted for 41 percent of Homestead’s valuation, 23 percent of Clairton’s, and 22 percent of Duquesne’s.
Industry largely abandoned the Mon Valley by the 1980s, leaving in its wake hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers, dwindling populations, shrinking tax bases, inadequate social services, and decaying infrastructure. In 1984, The New York Times described the Mon Valley as “a wretched place,” citing apathy, boarded-up windows, and widespread unemployment across dozens of small-town communities.
But the towns the mills built didn’t disappear with the industry. In the absence of municipalities’ ability to fund their own public services or will to rely on higher levels of government to do so, consolidation or dissolution of municipal governments may appear a viable solution to many of these woes. The fixed community identities industrialists had encouraged to maintain control as they built and profited from these communities, however, is a serious obstacle to consolidation.
You see it in the entrenched high-school-sports rivalries, an element of community identity and perhaps an alternate manifestation of the economic competition of the past. Hoerr argues, “For old-time fans of high-school football, the idea of making one town out of Clairton and Duquesne is tantamount to merging Iran and Iraq.” This dynamic also appears elsewhere in Southwestern Pennsylvania: For two decades, the high-school football players of Monaca and Rochester, postindustrial towns along the Ohio River, battled it out for the world’s largest football trophy and the right to name, for one year, the bridge connecting the two towns.
Beyond community identity, geographic distance and variation, unwillingness of political leaders to jeopardize their respective positions, and race- and class-based discrimination could all stymie a bid to consolidate two or more municipalities.
The Monaca/Rochester rivalry came to an end in 2009, as the result of the merging of two under-enrolled school districts. Local traditions like the “Bridge Game” are part of what’s at stake in this discussion of consolidation, raising the questions: Is consolidation worth it? Can a measure be said to provide for the health of the community if it erases much of that community’s identity?