Public safety meeting addresses crime concerns
ARMAGH -- Kenneth Umholtz moved to East Wheatfield Township 20 years ago to escape urban troubles such as crime and drugs.
But, he said, those issues have been increasingly making their way into life in the rural township in the southeastern part of Indiana County.
"The city is here," Umholtz said.
He and his fellow township supervisors hosted a public safety meeting Wednesday at the Armagh Fire Hall to address residents' concerns about crime.
A panel of the supervisors, Pennsylvania state police officers John Matchik Jr. and Sgt. Michael G. Schmidt, attorney Timothy S. Burns and chief county detective David Rostis discussed crime prevention with about 30 residents. The panel also addressed possible solutions, including implementing a neighborhood watch program and creating an independent township police force.
Residents are increasingly reporting incidents of theft and burglary in the township, Umholtz said. He cited the economic downturn and changes in the area's tightly knit culture as catalysts for crime. Since Jan. 1, 2010, 731 crimes were reported in East Wheatfield Township, Schmidt said, including 26 burglaries, 10 drug offenses and 21 assaults. The majority of those crimes were traffic-related, and compared to cities such as Johnstown and Pittsburgh, the crime rate is "pretty low." But problems persist, and drugs -- heroin, in particular -- are often the cause, law enforcement officials said.
"Heroin is the reason most of you are sitting here tonight," said Rostis, head of the Indiana County Drug Task Force.
Dealers come in from cities such as Cleveland, fetching $15,000 in three or four days in Indiana, then return to the city for more drugs, Rostis said. Desperate users break into homes, stealing tools and other items they can turn into quick cash.
But dealers may be looking for something else.
"What does a drug dealer want more than anything? Guns. And what do most houses in Indiana County have? Guns," Rostis said.
Matchik and Schmidt also reviewed procedures for reporting crimes and stressed the importance of community vigilance. Witnesses should provide as many details as possible to law enforcement, such as license plate numbers and even cellphone pictures, without endangering themselves, and should report suspicious activity when it is happening, they said. Residents should also be wary of opening their doors for people they don't know, Schmidt said. Instituting a township ordinance requiring all door-to-door salesmen to register with the township might help keep scam artists out of homes, he said.
The state police could also work with a community-organized effort such as a neighborhood watch, Matchik said. The group's function would be to report suspected criminal activity to police, rather than acting as vigilantes, Schmidt said. The group would also require a high level of commitment by residents, which Schmidt compared to the efforts need to run a volunteer fire department.
Some residents raised concerns that reporting information could incite drug dealers and other criminals to seek payback.
Efforts like the task force thrive on intelligence from community members, Rostis said.
"We try to protect your confidentiality more than anything," he said.
Asking state police to keep a closer watch on the township is easier said than done, as they face manpower constraints, Schmidt said. Indiana Borough is the only municipality with a full-time police force of the 38 in Indiana County. State troopers must cover the remaining 37 at a time when budgets are being cut across the board and the force is already threatened with potential layoffs.
The idea of implementing an independent police department in East Wheatfield Township had reached the ears of Umholtz, who outlined the projected costs of operating of such an undertaking during the meeting. He used as an example Homer City, which employs three officers at an annual cost of more than $140,000, not including squad cars or other expenses, he said.
East Wheatfield's total tax base is just over $330,000, he said.
If the township pursued a police force, officials would want to "do it right," said Burns, who looked into the matter with Umholtz, and recommended employing three to five officers to patrol the 30 miles of roads in the township in the event they followed through with the plan.
"We would have to at least triple real estate taxes. The money's just not there," Umholtz said.
Umholtz also expressed concern over paying officers the going hourly rate of $8 to $10.
"If you pay someone just above minimum wage to do a very serious job, they're not going to stay that long," he said.
A low pay rate could turn the township into a "revolving door" for police academy graduates looking for experience, Rostis said.
East Wheatfield Township resident and fire chief Tom Fry agreed.
"Would you risk your life for $8 an hour?" he said.
As for other solutions, Umholtz and Burns plan to push for the door-to-door sales ordinance, they said after the meeting.