By Steve Novotney
His mother’s City Chicken, that is. And her noodles. Shawn Schwertfeger admits Mom’s delicious home cooking was a factor when he made the decision to return to his native Upper Ohio Valley and accept the position as Police Chief for the city of Wheeling.
That was close to three years ago now. At the time the job offered a good amount of features, but the most attractive was the available police power. When Schwertfeger interviewed for the position, the Wheeling Police Department comprised 87 sworn officers. He immediately envisioned a pro-active approach to assault the drug- trafficking activity that he encountered far too often as a deputy for the Albemarle County Police Department. Schwertfeger, a 1984 graduate of John Marshall High School and a 1989 grad of West Liberty University, climbed the ladder while challenging himself to enforce all laws against all crimes.
But he had never been a “chief.”
By the time he arrived in Wheeling, the rank-and-file already had shrunk by four officers. Retirements and workforce turnover since have led to a police department with fewer than 70 officers at the time this conversation took place in the Victorian Room at the River City Restaurant and Banquet Center.
Schwertfeger, though, is confident in the department he runs today despite not being able to prevent every crime. He aspires to the goal of pleasing everyone even though realizes it’s not possible. The veteran of more than two decades in law enforcement (He discovered the position in Virginia without the use of the Internet because it had not yet been invented.) believes his department contains quality people, and he cites a recent story that involved three traveling deaf ladies who found themselves in the Friendly City without a place to sleep.
Soon after getting called to a local hotel, one of his officers (Pfc. Andrew Covington) opted to fund their overnight stay with cash out of his own pocket.
Despite the decrease in workforce and a lack of pro-active opportunities, Schwertfeger is not a quitter. He plans to continue acting as a hands-on police chief and will continue attending as many community-based gatherings as he can because he knows a partnership with the city’s citizens amounts to winning half the battle before a single arrest is made.
Law enforcement entices his competitive edge, the same one Schwertfeger utilized while earning all-conference honors as a member of the Hilltopper football team. But it is not only crime he’s battling because of several unfortunate incidents that have taken place across the country and how those situations have been covered by the national media.
No longer do hundreds of men and women line up for a few open positions, but he remains positive that there are still those who possess the character and fortitude it takes to serve and protect Wheeling, W.Va.
Novotney: Tell me about fighting crime in Wheeling.
Schwertfeger: Wheeling is unique, and we have talked about this several times.
It’s unique in the fact that we are located so close to other states, particularly Ohio that’s right across the river, and Pennsylvania is only 13, 14, 15 miles away. We have the interstates coming through, and we have a north-and-south state highway that runs through Wheeling, both of which are conducive to contraband being trafficked.
Wheeling has a big-city feel even though we are actually a small city. It’s very, very interesting to me having worked in a much larger area that was probably 70 percent rural. But Wheeling has an inner-city feel at times – not just in the downtown but also in the residential neighborhoods.
We have our problems, which primarily is the drug problem. The drug problem drives a lot of what we see as far as property crimes. Larcenies, burglaries, motor vehicle theft, anything that you can determine that someone is committing so that they can buy funds to feed their drug addiction.
So the drugs are the No. 1 priority, and the property crimes would probably fall in right behind that, although those numbers have started to drop a little bit until recently. We’ve started to see a little bit of an increase lately.
We’ve been fortunate that we do not have much of a gang problem. There are some people here who want to be gangbangers, and there are actual gang members that frequent Wheeling from Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh, but we have been able to keep that at bay. It’s not that out of control. That’s when you’ll start to see multiple shootings, homicides, that sort of thing.
It’s a tough job fighting crime. It’s unique to see pockets of criminal activity that will move around the city, and I think that’s probably true in any jurisdiction. As far as the thefts, you’ll have one area that gets hit for a period of 30, 60, 90 days, and then it will dry up, and then it moves to another locality.
Novotney: Four-out-of-10 of the people arrested in Wheeling are not Wheeling residents. Is that a frustrating statistic for you?
Schwertfeger: We can handle it. The frustration comes in when we were in talks with members of city government as it related to the cuts (to the department). You cannot look at this city’s population and base that on where you think the police department should be as far as staffing.
I drive around the city every day and you see a lot of out-of-state plates. But four out of every 10 people we arrest are non-residents, so it just goes to show that Wheeling is a hub. It’s the largest city in the northern panhandle, and people come here. They come here for medical reasons; they come here for a variety of reasons, and the vehicles you see in Wheeling are, a lot of the time, from outside the area.
Novotney: Is Wheeling, W.Va., what you would call a, “safe community?”
Schwertfeger: I would. Just last week we released the crime data from 2014. Would I like to see it better? Would I like to see those numbers smaller? Absolutely. But does that mean Wheeling is not safe? Absolutely not.
I think Wheeling is very safe. We have good school systems. We’re lucky to have our fire department and their paramedics that respond if you need medical attention. We’re able to cover this city with police officers, and it’s an attractive community. And it’s someplace that I made a decision to come to, and I’m happy I did.
Novotney: Tell me about the relationship that your police officers have with the residents in the Wheeling community.
Schwertfeger: Well, I would hope that it’s one of conversation and one of a lot of mutual respect. That’s not always the case. I am not naïve. My goal is to make everyone happy, internally and externally, and that’s not realistic, but I try.
I think I have seen a lot of our younger officers starting to buy into to the fact that it’s recognizing the importance of getting out of the patrol car. It’s not about putting on your Oakleys and cruising around like RoboCop. It’s more about getting out of the vehicle and talking with and getting to know the people that you serve.
There’s some real quality people in the Wheeling Police Department.
I think the relationship we have with our community is good. Can it be improved? Absolutely, and we strive to do that, and we try to deal with the issues when they arise.
Novotney: Does the Wheeling Police Department represent an employment opportunity for local residents as well?
Schwertfeger: Yes, it does. As a matter of fact, we are conducting a background investigation on the final person on our civil service list, so that means we will be re-testing.
It’s an interesting situation we find ourselves in. There will be a test on April 11, and that will be followed by a physical fitness test, and once we get the results, then we’ll begin the background part of it.
It’s an interesting time in our country right now because many media outlets, specifically, want to demonize the police professional. Unfortunately, sometimes what you see on the evening news or at midnight on a national TV show, people believe what they see. That’s the gospel, and fortunately that’s not the case.
Why on earth would anyone want to be a police officer?
There are also some concerns with job stability in the city of Wheeling in light of the cuts. I don’t believe that, but I know the last four or five candidates inquired about that when I have sat down with them about that. I don’t believe that to be the case.
Twenty, 25 years ago I was taking the test with 1,500 people. We’re lucky now to get 100 apply and 50 show up. That’s not just in Wheeling; that’s nationwide. The numbers are dwindling. There’s much more opportunity on the federal level as far as law enforcement, and that’s something we need to address here in Wheeling.
I don’t want to diminish the job being done in other communities, but in Wheeling there’s more of the job. There’s no reason our department should not be the highest-paid department in the Northern Panhandle.
There are employment opportunities, and I am very much looking for that rare breed of people who are still out there that want to be police officers. That’s who I’m after. I’m looking for not the person who just needs a job, but a person who wants to come to work and care about the community and wants to provide a service to the community. That’s who I’m looking for.
Novotney: Is the Wheeling Police Department a proactive department or a reactive department these days?
Schwertfeger: When I accepted the job in 2012, my goal before even setting foot in the city was to be very proactive. But because of some cuts and retirements, pretty much all they can do is come to work and answer the calls for service.
We are reactive at this point. But I’m an optimist, so I am still hopeful that we will get back to the point to where we can become proactive. Now, when I talk about being reactive, I don’t want to cause panic because that’s not needed. It’s not time to panic, and although we are below the number (of sworn officers), I’m not panicking. We will get back those numbers so we can do more.
Novotney: Are you pleased today with your decision to return to your native Upper Ohio Valley?
Schwertfeger: There were a lot of reasons why we made that decision. My wife and I are both from this area; all of our family, minus a few, are here; I went through a personal loss with my father back in 2011, and I did retire a little early.
So I am here because I want to be. I could have stayed in Virginia. We had a department that was probably a little more proficient and efficient. But that’s all right. I’m happy to be here. I’m happy to try to take Wheeling to the next level. Hopefully, we’re being successful in being that, and I have not regretted it.
Novotney: You are a hands-on chief while not all people in your position are hands-on. Tell me why you are very hands-on.
Schwertfeger: I sit in the office way more than I would ever like. If I could get out every day and meet the citizens, I would like that. But unfortunately, the administrative duties require me to be in the office taking care of the paperwork and the internal things that go on.
I like to be involved, and that’s how I am able to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s going on. Sometimes it’s as simple as talking to somebody to rectify a problem. If it’s a community issue, I don’t see why I can’t go out and maybe just talk to them.
Some of the most powerful times since I came to Wheeling are when I have walked into businesses and asked them if they feel safe. Based on their response, it’s like that has never been done before. There’s a lot more support out there. We talk about demonization of the police; there’s a lot more support than there are naysayers, but you don’t see that. All you see is what makes the headlines.
I try to go a lot of community meetings, and when I leave those kinds of events, I am so re-charged. I need that.
Novotney: Is the best part about moving home your mother’s cooking?
Schwertfeger: No doubt about it.
I’m not going to throw my wife under the bus, but nothing beats Mom’s cooking. She would cook for me every day if I were to ask her to, and I am not going to do that to her.
But thank God for those holidays. It used to be on the day after Christmas I would make the six-and-a-half hour journey from Virginia to visit family for a couple of days, but now I am here, and I get to see them all of the time, and I get to help Mom out. She pays me back by making me some City Chicken and mashed potatoes and some of her good noodles, and I’m in Heaven.
(Photos by Steve Novotney)