The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

February 16, 2013

A look at Moxham: Drug and Crime Commission to meet in neighborhood

Dave Sutor

JOHNSTOWN — It is common for Moxham residents to describe their Johnstown neighborhood both as a place with a crime issue and a perception problem.

Criminal activity once again has come to the forefront in recent months. Since late November, three major unsettling events have occurred: An alleged arson, an alleged murder and an afternoon shootout between two groups of males.

Residents are on edge.

But some are also quick to point out Moxham is not just a criminal haven as it is sometimes perceived by other Johnstown citizens.

“I think one of the things we’re really trying to do is get folks to look at what is good in the community and try to work through those things,” said Rev. Robert Wagner of Moxham Lutheran Church. “So, for instance, what are the relationships that are positive in our community, and how can those positive relationships encourage one another to stand firm against the things that are less positive in our community?”

Several groups, including Moxham Crime Watch, the city’s recently-formed Drug and Crime Commission, Moxham Renaissance and City Council, are responding to the recent outbreak.

Moxham Crime Watch is looking to somewhat change its approach to guarding the neighborhood. Realizing citizens might be reluctant to openly patrol the streets as they did in the past, the group is now encouraging residents to contact a liaison to the Johnstown Police Department if they spot suspicious activity.

“People are afraid to get involved,” said the organization’s treasurer, Theresa Subich. “They’d rather call to the police and have them do it than get involved themselves. … If (criminals) know you’re afraid, then they win.”

Crime watch President Dan Schofield added, “People have to stop being afraid to call the police.”

Moxham Renaissance, which has mostly dealt with cultural enhancement and historic preservation, is looking to become more involved in crime fighting. The group hopes to get surveillance cameras installed. “It’s sort of going to be a virtual crime watch. ... We want to make it a place where people can work and live without fear,” said Moxham Renaissance President Ian Miller.

City Councilwoman Rose Howarth, a former Moxham resident, is considering bringing together police representatives, Cambria County Drug Task Force members and others for a meeting. “I wish I could snap my fingers and make it all go away,” said Howarth. “I’d like to get information out to people about things that they can do when they see things.”

Police Chief Craig Foust compliments community members who have stepped forward, saying, “We’ve had excellent help from residents.”

The Drug and Crime Commission, which was put into place to examine crime in the city, will hold a law enforcement subcommittee meeting on Thursday beginning at 5:30 p.m., at Moxham Lutheran Church, located at 500 Park Ave.

“We don’t want people to be afraid to the point that they believe there’s no hope,” said the commission’s chairman, state Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Johns­town. “The answer is, no matter what happens, you need to have hope. There’s no reason to be afraid unless you’re on your own. We’re not on our own.”

Part of the crime commission’s assignment is to determine if there has actually been an increase in crime throughout Johnstown and, even more specifically, in certain neighborhoods, such as Moxham. Commission Vice Chairman Mike Walther, former director of the National Drug Intelligence Center, already has taken a look at some of the preliminary data and formed a few initial thoughts.

“The police go in and do a more intense enforcement activity in one area and sometimes all it does is put pressure on the bad guys, and they move off into another area,” said Walther. “I think that may be what we’re seeing in Moxham right now is a combination of that and some of the blight in Moxham.”

Commission members are also examining what role, if any, public housing and transient populations play in criminal activity.

Forty-two percent of properties in Moxham are rentals, according to Johnstown Community and Economic Development Director Renée Daly. Some people have expressed concern that the high percentage of rentals, along with disengaged out-of-town landlords, leads to a criminal element gaining access to the neighborhood.

“You have landlords that don’t do their due diligence when they rent to people,” said Howarth.

Among Moxham’s rental properties, fewer than 10 percent are inhabited by participants in the federal Section 8 voucher program for low-income households, according to Johnstown Housing Authority Executive Director Dan Kanuch. His research shows that neither the alleged murder nor alleged arson took place at housing units connected to Section 8. The shootout still is under investigation.

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