Denial is no longer valid.
It took the Johnstown Crime and Violence Commission six months to publicly verify what most panel members highly suspected from the outset last December – that the city has a troublesome, growing rate of lawlessness.
Anyone who still harbors doubts about that needs to wake up and be part of the solution, rather than a part of the problem. Verification has come in the form of a 25-page report issued by a blue-ribbon panel of dedicated, community-spirited residents.
To its credit, the panel has not only made conclusions about the worst, but it has laid out a game plan for assuring better days ahead.
“Although a tremendous amount of work went into this report, this was the relatively easy part, panel member and police Chief Craig Foust said last week.
“We were able to identify a lot of the problems. We were able to look at steps that we need to take and things like that. Now, the challenge is finding the resources available to institute these programs.”
Here are the key recommendations:
* Create a strategic enforcement team to deal with drug use and violent crime.
* Encourage expansion of neighborhood watch programs.
* Request a moratorium on Section 8 housing vouchers.
* Ask the state to remove the community corrections center from the downtown.
* Develop neighborhood activity centers for children.
* Get nonprofit organizations and businesses to provide financial support to law enforcement.
Among the models for this historic project have been the once-beleaguered cities of McKeesport and Altoona. Both believe they’ve made progress in their battles against crime.
Hopefully, Johnstown can be as successful.
“It really surprised me that as we were looking at the problem, it was growing,” state Rep. Bryan Barbin said, pointing to criminal activity including three drug-related murders since January. “Almost every week there was something (bad) in the paper.”
For the commission as a whole, several culprits stand out in their report. For its chairman, Barbin, two head the list: Heroin’s infiltration here and Pennsylvania’s Community Corrections Center on Washington Street. He had this to say about them:
* Heroin: “Even though it’s more expensive here in Johnstown than Philadelphia, it is very inexpensive to initially get.
“If you wanted a dime bag of heroin and you were in Philadelphia, you could get it for $5. If you wanted a dime bag of heroin in Johnstown, you might have to spend $15. But, once you’re addicted to it, you’re addicted. And, at that moment, the burglary rates go through the roof because you’re going to do whatever you have to do to get the money to pay the guy who’s the dealer. You’re not buying one bag of heroin at that point; you’re buying a lot of bags of heroin and you’re addicted. At that point, anything you thought you couldn’t do is out the door.”
* Community corrections center: “There are no jobs here to hire people coming out of the community corrections center. They are being warehoused. They are not being overseen and given therapy. It’s killing us. We’re asking them to get it out of Johnstown.”
With a commission report in hand, what’s next?
“It’s now up to city council. It’s up to the neighborhoods and business district to make it safer,” Barbin said.
The commission report recommends increasing police protection. McKeesport, with its 20,000 population, similar to Johnstown’s, employs 66 police officers. Johnstown has 31.
“Business people and nonprofits must go forward and figure out how to fund additional police coverage,” Barbin said.
As a legislator, he more than anyone on the panel knows how hard that is in a time when state and federal dollars are being slashed.
Our community should be very grateful to the individuals who freely gave their time and expertise to serve on the commission. Their work and findings are of extreme value and interest to all of us who reside in the Johnstown region. Crime and violence know no boundaries.
Their report must not become another binder of data and statistics left sitting on a shelf collecting dust.
City Council must accept leadership responsibility to move the panel’s recommendations forward. Residents called on to help must step up and be willing participants.
It won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap. Considering the seriousness of this problem, no one should object to hard work.
Obtaining the funding needed just might be another story.
Denial is no longer valid.
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