He thinks a dozen or more additional full-time officers could put a big dent in Johns-
town’s growing crime problem, but police Chief Craig Foust is not making excuses.
Johnstown police are constantly adjusting patrol routines and bringing new strategies to expand their visibility throughout the city, with an emphasis on problem areas.
“Officers’ presence is something that will always have an impact on crime,” Foust said.
Foust outlined his department’s response to spikes in crime in the wake of three recent city homicides and last month’s Johnstown Commission on Crime and Violence report.
The commission acknowledged that more police is the “optimal solution.” It encouraged the city to develop a strategic enforcement team, analyze crime trends, work with civic and business leaders and reach out to other law enforcement agencies.
Some of those recommendations are part of his standard operating procedure, Foust said.
A daily review of crime reports allows him to assign additional patrols to problem areas, as resources permit. The review confirms some perceptions about the city’s crime problem, but it also brings some surprises, he noted.
“The perception is that things are happening in this town that never happened before,” Foust said. “I am deeply concerned about it.
“We see the problem has moved into some traditionally quiet neighborhoods, while some other areas have slowed down considerably. That is an important piece of information that we can respond to.”
Beefing up patrols
Several high-profile incidents and an overall increase in calls to the Moxham section of the city showed a need for more patrols there. His department was able to get a grant for the extra manhours to assign an extra car to the neighborhood. The patrol is not required to respond to minor calls and incidents, but to specifically be a visible presence on the streets, interacting with residents.
Similar patrols are used in other neighborhoods when they are available, he added.
His officers are working with Neighborhood Watch groups in Moxham and other areas. He encourages neighbors to work together as extra eyes and ears of police.
He likes the idea of more privately funded surveillance cameras in neighborhoods and commercial areas and would like to have access to a database showing all of their locations so his detectives can know which cameras may have recorded an incident.
Foust embraces the commission’s call for a strategic enforcement team, but prefers the moniker “tactical response team.”
The team of four police officers and two intelligence analysts would work a flexible schedule, targeting areas of suspected drug activity or other problems. The idea is to identify and arrest dealers, vandals or thieves plaguing the neighborhood.
Help from others
Foust said his department has always accepted assistance from other law enforcement agencies. He points to his officers’ participation with the Cambria County district attorney’s Drug Task Force and the federal Safe Streets program.
“We will reach out to the attorney general’s office to see if they can assist us,” Foust said. “It has always been our policy to take help where we can get it. The Drug Task Force does a lot of work in the city and does an excellent job.
“There are no territorial issues.”
But the crime problem runs deep and it is constantly evolving, Foust said. Heroin is ravaging the city’s neighborhoods, with users who will stop at nothing to get money for their addictions.
“A few years ago, when crack cocaine became a problem here, we were somewhat taken aback by the crime and violence it brought,” he admits. “Heroin seems to lead to just as much crime and violence. It is difficult.”
Drugs not only issue
The crime and violence commission cited the heroin problem, but also pointed to two other issues. It noted problems created by former residents of the Washington Street Community Corrections Center and other halfway houses and also suggested a link between crime rates and the high number of subsidized housing properties in the city.
Foust agreed that the halfway houses have been linked to many crimes, and would add several community drug rehabilitation centers to the list.
But he’s not sure the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development Section 8 housing is directly to blame for criminal activity.
“I believe there is proof a lot of the major crimes can be traced back to the Community Corrections Center’s former clients,” Foust said, explaining that the former state prison inmates form relationships in the community while staying in the Washington Street center and then decide to remain in Johnstown after their release.
“It is a deterrent to the quality of life in the city when these people stay once they have completed the program,” Foust said.
The same can be said for many of the drug rehabilitation programs that gather recovering addicts in some neighborhoods and don’t hold them accountable for their activity outside the center, Foust believes.
While he acknowledges that the rehabilitation programs and halfway houses have important missions, he says they can do a better job. He points to the success of Peniel Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center, located just outside the city in West Taylor Township.
“You can look at that organization with pride,” he said. “We have very few problems with any of these people. This is what rehab should be doing.”
He can’t say the same for other programs.
“We are not experiencing this with the small, 30-day, drive-by drug programs,” Foust said. “Their people roam the city streets. We need to get a better handle on these types of places.”
While there is no doubt that poverty and crime are related, Foust stops short of pointing to subsidized housing as a problem.
The Section 8 properties are inspected and require background checks for renters, he noted. The same can’t be said for other rental units.
“If we lose all of the Section 8 housing, it will drive people into substandard housing even more,” he said. “There are a lot of good landlords in the city providing clean, safe housing, but there are a lot who don’t.”
Rental owners who buy up cheap rental properties need some incentives to invest in improvements and maintenance, he said.
Larger force desired
Foust says he understands the city’s financial situation and appreciates the support his department receives from City Council. But he admits he’d like to have more full-time officers on the streets.
What size should the department be?
“As large as possible,” he said, smiling.
A 2008 study looked at the department’s caseload and Johnstown’s population and demographics. It recommended a 52-officer roster.
“We could live with that, if we could get 52,” he said.
There are now 37 full-time police officers.
Randy Griffith covers the Johnstown Housing Authority for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/photogriffer57.
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