A steadily shrinking Altoona Police Department, with only one full-time narcotics officer, was fighting an outbreak of drug-related crime that had grown by nearly 400 percent in only a few years.
The city knew something needed to be done. But what?
In order to answer the question, the Blair County municipality put together the Altoona Drug and Crime Commission in late 1998.
The group of 11 community leaders, including former mayor and commission chairman Daniel Milliron, studied the local crime problem by compiling statistics, holding public meetings and interviewing residents. Using the information gathered, they created a list of recommendations that, in part, played a role in reducing the city’s crime problem during the past decade.
Now, the city of Johnstown hopes to replicate the success with its own Drug and Crime Commission, which convened for the first time earlier this month. Johnstown’s commission is based on models used by Altoona and, more recently, McKeesport.
“It provided a very complete record of what the problem was, and anybody that had their head in the sand had to be woken up,” said Milliron, a Blair County common pleas judge.
Johnstown’s commission will analyze information, provide a report to City Council and then disband after six months or so, similarly to what happened in Altoona. McKeesport’s commission is different in that it is permanent.
“Our problems aren’t exactly the same as McKeesport’s and Altoona’s, but there is crime here and there’s crime that needs to be addressed,” said Johnstown City Manager Kristen Denne. “Anytime people are willing to work together for a positive cause I think it’s a very good thing.”
In 1999, the year the report was issued, Altoona’s violent crime rate was 269.3 incidents per 100,000 people, according to city-data.com. It dropped to 214.0 by 2011, despite a few upward spikes along the way. “We’re going to hope that we have at least as much success as they had over in Altoona,” said state Rep. Bryan Barbin, chairman of Johnstown’s commission.
Members of Altoona’s group felt the city needed to better enforce public housing rules, including conducting thorough background checks of applicants. They cited concerns about how local drug treatment facilities operated.
One of the centers, Right Turn of Pennsylvania, filed a federal lawsuit against the city, claiming the commission’s report damaged the business’ reputation by blaming it for part of Altoona’s drug-related crime increase.
The Altoona board also recommended acquiring Community Development Block Grant money in order to pay for more police officers.
“Altoona (addressed its problem) by taking the report and using it to convince business people they needed to do something to avoid the character of the city changing,” Barbin said.
“They made a commitment to step up and provide additional funding or additional resources that were directly related to stopping the increase in drug incidents and violent crime. It did make a difference.”
McKeesport’s problem is more acute than in either Johnstown or Altoona.
Its crime rate was 638.6 per 100,000 in 2011, compared with 386.5 for Johnstown. In 2010, McKeesport’s number of reported violent crimes was 229.81 percent higher than the national average, according to cityrating.com.
In response, the city’s mayor, Michael Cherepko, established a select crime committee, consisting of more than two dozen community leaders, soon after he took office in January 2012. Members are primarily tackling the issue of crime among youngsters.
“Many of our youths don’t have the home life that many of us remember growing up,” said Cherepko. “They’re not talking about what they want to be when they grow up because they don’t think they will grow up. We need to change that mentality.”
Cherepko has encouraged church leaders, police officers, politicians, parents and educators to work together in order to teach children how to avoid being sucked into the crime culture. “The select committee is running on the idea that it takes a village to raise a child,” said Cherepko.
Johnstown Mayor Tom Trigona added, “(McKeesport’s mayor) leans toward the church groups a lot. He was more interested in church leaders. They’re really functional with them. They give him a lot of advice constantly.”
Some positive developments already have been noticed thanks to the committee.
“It’s becoming to be effective,” said McKeesport Police Department Chief Bryan Washowich.
“Communication with the community is growing.”
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