Mayor Chardae Jones wants to “try new things” in Braddock — starting with the police

As the borough nears an exit from Act 47 after decades, a new mayor eyes the implications for public safety.

Police cars parked outside Braddock police department headquarters.

Police cars parked outside Braddock police department headquarters.

COLIN DEPPEN / THE INCLINE
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Chardae Jones saw two relatives arrested by Braddock police by the time she was a teen.

Now 30, Jones is the borough’s new interim mayor with administrative power over the same department.

Her predecessor, former Braddock mayor and current Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, was criticized by some for yielding oversight of the force — traditionally a central responsibility of the mayor’s office — to the borough’s police chief.

And while Jones has no plans to formally take it back, saying she instead wants oversight to be a collaborative effort between herself, borough council and the police, she has revealed a heightened interest in the functions of local law enforcement and how those functions are perceived by the public.

So far, just weeks into her tenure, Jones has further codified what’s expected of members of the force, drafting goals and job descriptions for the positions of chief and sergeant.

“(This is) how we will measure success in the future when it comes to these roles,” Jones told The Incline. She’s also crafted parameters for what’s expected of police department employees during probationary periods, and said those didn’t exist until now.

A business analyst by trade, Jones brings a certain wonkishness to the discussion.

Braddock interim Mayor Chardae Jones is pictured in the Braddock Borough Municipal Building.

Braddock interim Mayor Chardae Jones is pictured in the Braddock Borough Municipal Building.

COLIN DEPPEN / THE INCLINE

She’s plotting a public survey to determine how the local police force is viewed by the borough’s roughly 2,000 residents — a benchmark or data point for future reference, she explained. She also plans to survey the police to see how they view their jobs and where departmental efficiencies may be lacking or more policies and guidelines needed.

“I would like to know their code of conduct, if they have one,” Jones added of the department.

She also brings her own experiences with Braddock’s police to the table, though she views those as less relevant to this process.

And maybe most importantly, Jones brings an understanding of how finances fit into the picture in a town with a cash-strapped, part-time department and a financial status that continues to preclude greater investment in that department.

This as a growing public policy discussion focuses on the shortcomings of part-time policing and how better police jobs can make for better police.

Braddock knows this. It’s just been prevented from doing anything about it for a long, long time.

Act 47 and the police

Braddock is financially distressed and has been for decades. The former steel town collapsed, along with the industry, and became the second Pennsylvania municipality enrolled in the state’s oversight program under Act 47 or The Financially Distressed Municipalities Act. Braddock remains there 30 years later.

The program has allowed Braddock to offset tax revenue losses, shore up its finances and ultimately avoid bankruptcy. But it’s also imposed spending limits that have prevented the borough from employing full-time officers because it couldn’t offer to pay benefits without violating those limits.

In October, then-acting Braddock Police Chief Guy Collins told PublicSource that at 57 he was still only a part-timer at the department, earning about $18 an hour without insurance. Rookie officers in Braddock start at $11.80, meaning many work other jobs to make ends meet. (Collins went from acting chief to chief this week in a 5-1 council vote surrounded by allegations of impropriety against him. He remains part time and limited to 32 hours a week.)

This dynamic isn’t unusual in smaller Pennsylvania municipalities that are unable to recruit or afford more experienced officers and in the numbers they require. The fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Antwon Rose II last June by an East Pittsburgh police officer highlighted this reality and the often transient nature of small-town policing. Subsequent reform discussions in Harrisburg included talk of requiring better training but also better pay that could reduce the number of officers bouncing between gigs or moonlighting at other jobs while flirting with exhaustion.

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“We need to keep the best police in that field and make sure they don’t need to do other work, other jobs to pay the bills,” state Rep. Dan Miller, D-Allegheny, said at the time. (Talk of consolidating smaller departments also continues region-wide.)

In places like Braddock, turnover is high. Chief Collins told PublicSource that when he’s lucky enough, he’ll have a minimum of two officers on patrol. “But if everyone’s at a second job or already maxed out on shifts,” the outlet reported, “he sends out a single officer who sticks to the better-lit thoroughfares.” Attempts to contact Collins this week were unsuccessful.

Braddock is prevented from doing much about this under Act 47 and would have been regardless, as tax revenues plummeted and the borough found itself with less and less money to spend.

“The police are a third of our budget,” Council President Tina Doose told The Incline, crediting Act 47 spending limits for Braddock’s survival. “We couldn’t afford to spend more.”

But that could be changing soon.

Exit plan

Jones, who serves as co-chair of the borough’s Act 47 commission, sees Braddock’s Act 47 exit as unavoidable, even non-negotiable.

“We have to get out of Act 47,” she said. “It’s no longer a question of if, but when.”

The when, according to borough Act 47 Coordinator George Dougherty, is summer of 2022, at the earliest. After 30 years in the program, though, that feels tangibly close.

And it likely could have been even sooner, Dougherty said, had it not been for the closure of the local UPMC hospital and Allegheny County granting U.S. Steel, the company behind Braddock’s massive Edgar Thomson Steel Works plant, a major reduction in the tax assessment on that property.

“Braddock probably could have come out of Act 47 five or six years ago — my understanding is that Braddock was on its way,” Dougherty explained. “Now, whether it would have been super healthy coming out at that time is another question.”

But Braddock is healthier now, per Dougherty, and in the process of drafting its three-year Act 47 exit plan.

Blighted properties in Braddock are pictured.

Blighted properties in Braddock are pictured.

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That exit would require Braddock show it’s financially viable, that it’s able to provide basic municipal services, policing among them, and that it’s no longer running regular, large deficits. The borough also has to get rid of all extraordinary taxes, the kind municipalities are allowed to impose under Act 47 in an attempt to bring balance to lopsided budgets.

Dougherty said Braddock has run two small deficits in two of the last three years. He said those stemmed from sewer billing issues that cut into revenues.

“People got undercharged or didn’t get charged at all,” Dougherty explained. Now that the problem has been corrected, he said, money is coming in and a budget surplus is expected this year.

Dougherty said the slow but significant economic resurgence of Braddock’s main thoroughfare, Braddock Avenue, and borough-wide redevelopment plans bode well for the borough’s Act 47 departure.

As the tax base grows, as new businesses arrive, and as old buildings are rehabbed and properties reassessed, Dougherty said the hope is that resulting infusions of tax revenue and tax revenue-producing properties help sustain Braddock where for decades they hadn’t. (Additionally, he said, more taxes being paid could mean a lower need for tax hikes in the future.)

And if that happens, Braddock would have more to spend on its police force absent Act 47’s limits on growth of expenditures, staff sizes and the addition of full-time employees without offsetting revenues. Dougherty cites “clear limits on increases in salaries and pay rates and things of that sort” under the program.

But while there is one discussion to be had about the correlation between better compensated police and better policing, there is another to be had about how policing works — and how it’s viewed — in communities like Braddock.

Jones said she’s looking to start the latter discussion now.

The public survey

Braddock’s median household income was less than half the state average in 2015, per census data. Its per capita crime rate remains roughly twice the state average, FBI statistics show.

From a public safety perspective, Braddock’s removal from Act 47 would allow for more money to be spent on the borough’s police force, potentially allowing it to recruit more officers, better-trained officers or just to keep the officers it has from having to work elsewhere to make ends meet.

“The issue is that under Act 47 we don’t have full-time, like, salaried officers,” Jones said. “Because we’re under Act 47 and can’t afford to pay them more.”

But philosophical considerations remain, especially at a moment of heightened debate around police-community relations, police tactics and more.

By surveying members of the public, Jones hopes to get a baseline reading for how Braddock residents view their police. Likely questions include: “What do you like about the Braddock police department?” “What don’t you like?” “What would you change?” and “Can you name three Braddock police officers?”

Jones plans to present the findings to the department and to use them as a benchmark — a mile marker of public sentiment — to compare against down the road. Jones may conduct the survey online — assuming she can verify the residency of respondents — or in public spaces or both.

She’ll pose similar questions to the police and said she plans to meet every borough police officer by the end of this month. There are around 11 part-time police in Braddock now, Doose said. Two of them are currently on leave.

“I want to ask them what they like about their jobs, what they don’t like and how the job can be made to be better,” Jones said.

Perceptions are important — mutually speaking.

“I want to bridge this relationship,” Jones said of the public and police. “I want them to be more like people and less like police. If the community sees them as people, and not just police, it could be a remarkable thing for the community and for public safety.”

And while Jones is unsure what she’ll learn from her public survey, she expects it to challenge her preconceived notions, recalling her own formative experiences as a child.

“I’m an optimist and I realize my views on the police are much, much different from a lot of people’s — even though mine shouldn’t be what they are,” she said.

She paused before continuing.

“My first incident with the police is when I saw someone get arrested as a kid.” (Jones confirmed this incident involved a relative but asked that their identity be withheld from this article. Given the time that has elapsed since and its relevance, The Incline agreed to grant her request.) She saw another relative arrested when police showed up to a birthday party to take the person into custody.

“A birthday party,” she recalled with astonishment.

Asked if it felt strange to now be overseeing the same department, Jones said, “I hadn’t really thought about it like that.”

She continued: “You would think I would grow up to not like the police. I don’t have an issue with police if policing is done well. But the reason I want to do this survey is to get out of my own bias and fantasyland where everything is OK when it’s not, apparently. I want to see what the people think.”