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July 3, 2013

CITY CRIME CRITIQUE: With report in hand, officials now look to put suggestions into action

JOHNSTOWN — A template is now in place to help elected officials, law enforcement officers, nonprofit organizations, businesses, neighborhood groups and citizens address Johnstown’s growing crime problem.

On Wednesday, the Johnstown Crime and Violence Commission, chaired by state Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Johnstown, publicly released a 25-page report it compiled after investigating crime in the city over the past six months. Recommendations were made concerning law enforcement, housing, rehabilitation and education. The results were given to City Council, which created the board in December.

“I think, based on this information, we will be able to make some good strides towards cleaning up the city,” said Johnstown police Chief Craig Foust.

“Although a tremendous amount of work went into this report, this was the relatively easy part. 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,” Foust said.

Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan complimented the work done by the 12-person board.

“This report is a really good thing and it is going to benefit me,” said Callihan.

Council plans to immediately begin considering the suggestions, which include increasing the size of the police force, asking nonprofits and businesses to contribute money to help fight crime, improving the way

individuals from criminal and drug treatment halfway houses are monitored during their free time, encouraging landlords to become more knowledgeable about their rights and responsibilities, and establishing neighborhood activity centers for children with help from the Greater Johnstown School District.

The commission recommended asking the state to remove the Community Corrections Center, located on Washington Street, from the heart of downtown Johnstown when the current contract expires in 2015. Felons in the program struggle to find jobs in a city with 10 percent unemployment, leaving the individuals with little to occupy their time except milling around town, according to Barbin. Also, the panel feels a request should be made to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for a moratorium on the number of local Section 8 housing vouchers because the program has, in its opinion, played a role in the city’s poverty rate increasing from 24.6 percent to 32.5 percent over the past decade.

“This can’t wait for a month,” said Barbin when explaining the urgent need to take steps.

The most ambitious and likely costliest proposal was a call for the creation of a strategic enforcement team, within the city’s police department, to target drug use and violent crime.

The estimated cost for the unit, which would consist of four police officers and two intelligence analysts, would be approximately $350,000 to $400,000 per year.

“The money could be raised,” said Mayor Thomas Trigona. “I don’t know if we’ll get it all, but enough to get it going.”

Commission members ex-pressed optimism about citizens’ willingness to participate in neighborhood groups. For example, the revamped Moxham Neighborhood Watch has grown considerably in recent months as residents attempt to deal with an outbreak of crime in the area. In 2012, police responded to almost 2,500 calls in Moxham, more than in any other neighborhood. There were fewer than 1,500 calls to Moxham in 2010.

“It’s not just the city and its officials, it’s the neighborhoods and the people that have to be proactive,” said Deputy Mayor Frank Janakovic.

“I see that happening.”

Another key recommendation was to duplicate the work of Operation Our Town, a group of businesses and nonprofits that came together to fight crime in Blair County after Altoona convened its own crime commission.

“We should be following Altoona’s lead,” said Barbin.

“Altoona made the case. They said the character of the city was changing. They went to the business community and they said if you help us, this is what we can do. The organization has raised $2 million to help law enforcement.”

Councilman Pete Vizza, who spearheaded the creation of the commission, added, “We may need to have a little bit more support from (businesses and nonprofits) because it’s a quality-of-life issue.

“I would love to do this without raising taxes. It’s vital that we get to where we need to get and address these issues that are affecting our way of life here. Johnstown shouldn’t have all the violent crime and the drugs that it has right now. That’s not the town that I grew up in, and I want to get it back to the old days. That would be a good thing, going back in time to the old days.”

Part of the challenge facing Johnstown – in terms of getting money for police protection – is that more than half of the city’s properties are tax exempt.

“We’re down and out right now,” said Councilman William Gentile Jr. “I think it’s time for the nonprofit organizations in the city of Johnstown to step up to the plate and help us out on this problem that we have. … Everybody’s got to help in this situation.”

City Council established the commission in response to what it felt was a large increase in crime during the past few years.

The study verified the members’ concerns. The number of burglaries/breaking and enterings increased from fewer than 200 in 2009 to almost 300 in 2012. There were more than 150 reported assaults in 2012. In 2011, the city had 386.50 violent crimes per 100,000 people.

Three local drug-related murders occurred during the period in which the commission met.

“I think we’re basically on the brink right now,” said Councilwoman Marie Mock. “Either we can go one way or the other. I think this is a critical time.”

Along with Barbin and Foust, the commission consisted of former National Drug Intelligence Center Director Michael Walther; Cambria-Rowe Business College Executive Director Mike Artim; Cambria County First Assistant District Attorney Heath Long; Greater Johnstown High School Assistant Principal Michael Dadey; Christ Centered Community Church pastor the Rev. Sylvia King; former Johnstown Economic Development Director Jim White; United Way of the Laurel Highlands President Bill McKinney; the Rev. Robert Wagner of Moxham Lutheran Church; West End resident George Evanisko; and Johnstown Housing Authority member John Slezak.

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