It's a new year, and the Borough of Jim Thorpe welcomed it in with a new mayor, a new police station and a new police chief.
Now, the police department is welcoming a new era of open communication and interaction with those it serves and protects.
Police Chief Joseph Schatz and Mayor Mike Sofranko are inviting residents to meet the department and get to know its officers at a series of public town hall meetings.
The first will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at Diligent Fire Company, in the Heights section of the borough.
The second will be at 7 p.m. Jan. 28 at the Fairview Hose Company, on the east side of the borough. A third gathering is planned for 7 p.m. Feb. 4 at the Phoenix Hose Company on Broadway.
Each meeting is geared to a different section of the borough, said Sofranko, who, as mayor, oversees the police department.
"Those who live on the East Side may not have the same concerns as those who live on Broadway," he said.
People are invited to ask questions and offer comments at the sessions. They do not have to give their names or addresses. But, Sofranko and Schatz ask that people not attend to verbally attack individual officers or officials.
"We're approachable," Sofranko said. "If you have a question, approach us."
Police will offer information on crime statistics in the borough and introduce the officers. If they are unable to give an immediate answer to a resident's question, they will take it back to study and discuss it, Sofranko said.
Sofranko said the department expects to hold the public meetings every six to eight months.
Police hope the sessions will give them a more thorough grounding in residents' concerns, and allow them to keep people better informed about police activities and policies.
"People have the right to know what's going on," Sofranko said.
The exceptions are information concerning juveniles, whose records are not public, and those taken in on mental health issues, whose information is private under federal HIPAA (1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) medical privacy laws.
Along with more open lines of communication, the department anticipates increased visibility. Sofranko has been riding along with officers on patrol, and Chief Schatz will also be patrolling.
The ride-alongs were an eye-opener for Sofranko.
"These guys are not just baby-sitting, " he said.
Both Sofranko and Schatz want to reinvigorate the borough's lapsed "community policing" programs. They are asking residents to volunteer for fire police-type duties, for example, directing traffic at emergency scenes, parades and other events.
Both Sofranko and Schatz said they are building the new department on the foundation laid by previous administrations. Methods and policies may have been different in prior administrations, but they always have the community's best interest in mind, they said.
"Everybody has their own way of doing things," Sofranko said.
Former Police Chief Barry Andrew retired late last year, and borough council in December hired Schatz, now in his 13th year in the department, in his place. Also, there will be two new positions opening in the police department, that of sergeant and detective, and council wants to hire a new officer. Sofranko said the department intends to create "special details" to handle specific types of crimes.
Schatz has his work cut out for him. The most troubling trends involve illegal drugs, drunken driving, assaults and disorderly conduct. Sofranko said he's especially concerned about how the drugs are coming in to Jim Thorpe.
Headway has already been made in some areas. For example, the police station is now at Memorial Park. A former gathering place for teenagers, it was often the site of skirmishes and illicit behavior.
There are now cameras installed to record activity in that area.
The department has grown over the years: There are currently five full-time and six part-time police officers on the force. The department, which serves the Borough of Jim Thorpe not Penn Forest Township or other outlying areas now has five cruisers, with 5,000 miles logged each month, on average; and new technology that allows instant communication and immediate access to data. Police make an average of about 100 arrests a month.
The town hall meetings – and the changes initiated by Sofranko and Schatz – have the full backing of borough council.
"From council's point of view, I think it's an excellent idea," said council President Justin Yaich. "This is just one more thing that's going to make the police department more effective and efficient."