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Serious crime

  • CHRIS PARKER/TIMES NEWS Lansford Police Chief John Turcmanovich
    CHRIS PARKER/TIMES NEWS Lansford Police Chief John Turcmanovich
Published February 23. 2013 09:02AM

Nesquehoning Police Chief Sean Smith studies a database, a two-year "snapshot" of crime in the borough. While the figures show a slight drop, they also reveal an increase in serious crimes. Assaults, he notes, have more than tripled.

A few miles to the west, Lansford Police Chief John Turcmanovich sees a troubling increase in sexual assaults of children, and in neighboring Summit Hill, Police Chief Joseph Fittos is working to thwart thieves who are breaking into homes to steal copper.

In Coaldale, Police Chief Timothy Delaney worries about the rise in break-ins of both homes and vehicles, and how to keep residents in his borough safe after the loss of his full-time officers.

After a few years of downward trends, overall crime rates are lower, but serious crime is again creeping up in the state, in Carbon County, and in the Panther Valley, according to state-mandated documentation. Serious crimes, including homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, and arson, rose 2.1 percent between 2010 and 2011, according to figures compiled by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

"Ever since I've been district attorney, it seems like every year it increases a little bit," says Carbon County District Attorney Gary Dobias. "But, the past several years, it's increased at a greater pace."

Dobias said that in 2010, his office saw about 900 cases, about 10 percent more than in 2009. By 2011, that had grown to about 1,000 cases. By 2012, the number increased by 20 percent, to about 1,200.

"This year's statistics are on a pace greater than last year's, for the first seven weeks of 2013. So, I expect this year's figures to increase in the amount they have in the past couple of years," Dobias says.

The figures do not include juvenile offenses, nor summary offenses such as harassment, disorderly conduct and certain traffic violations.

The increase is reflected in the prison population, Dobias says.

"Our jail is at capacity," he says. "When it was built in the mid-1990s, the population was about 40. Now it's in the 170s."

Local impact

The types of crimes on the rise varies from town to town, according to police chiefs.

For example, assaults in Nesquehoning went from six in 2011 to 23 in 2012 a 283 percent increase. That's a big jump, even though the numbers are small. Nesquehoning is home to some 3,360 people.

In Summit Hill, crime is up, Fittos says.

"We have a variety of everything, from thefts to assaults," he says."But stealing copper out of peoples' homes has increased drastically."

In Lansford, sexual abuse of children is a major concern for police. Police have made several arrests in each of the past few years. The cases, some of which are under investigation, take their toll on officers' time and emotional well-being.

"The technicalities are so sensitive. Young victims must be taken to a Child Advocacy Center, because they are the only ones allowed to interview victims. Our center is in Scranton," Turcmanovich says. "It's a challenge to get everyone the child, the guardian or parent, the Children and Youth Agency worker, and the officer all together there."

The cases drain the officers who handle them.

"When they come in, you could cry when you see them and hear their stories," Turcmanovich said.

Police are seeing more instances of child sexual assault as families fracture, he says.

"Most of the victims are from separated families, or have unmarried parents. It seems like the social fabric is gone," Turcmanovich says. "I feel sorry for these young kids. How's it going to affect them as they grow?"

Sexual abuse is among the rising tide of crime in the borough. Last year, the department logged 5,744 complaints the second most of any police department in Carbon County.

Lansford officer Chris Ondrus says people become frustrated due to the "CSI Effect." That's when people expect their local police department to solve crimes like the ones on television "in 40 minutes, without commercials."

In Nesquehoning, Smith is working to curb the spike in child pornography, assaults and other serious crimes. He cautions that numbers don't always tell the whole story, and a serious crime can take weeks or months, sometimes years, to resolve. Evidence must be analyzed, and suspects and witnesses tracked down and persuaded to talk.

Delaney is fighting crime with a lot less ammunition: His three full-time officers were laid off by borough council last March. Now, his department is composed of a few part-time officers. State police from the Frackville barracks answer calls when the part-timers are off-duty.

He has his hands full, especially with sexual assaults, drug cases and other serious crimes.

"It's hard to get a lot of these investigations done. I end up doing 99 percent of them because of the hours that part-timers can only work. A lot of these cases take weeks or months to investigate. It works best when it's a team effort," he says. "And we do have a lot of drug activity in Coaldale."

County-wide, District Attorney Dobias says he's seen a big spike in driving-under-the-influence crimes, and in technology-related crimes: Identity theft, credit card theft, and using stolen automated teller machine cards.

"Technology is great. But like other things, it can be abused," he says.

Why the increase?

Dobias points to two reasons for the uptick in crime: The economy and substance abuse.

"We have increased unemployment, to a certain extent, we have stagnant wages, and I think we have more people at the poverty level," he says. "I think all those reasons and considerations (lead to) people committing crimes."

Drug and alcohol abuse "leads people to commit crimes. It certainly also affects their judgment about doing things," he says.

"It's a Catch-22 situation, because of the tough economic conditions, there are budgetary restraints that every level federal, state and local. I think those restraints lead to understaffed or underfunded programs. It's easy to say, 'let's cut back on this stuff because you don't have the money'," Dobias says. "On the other hand, if you cut back, you have a lack of money for personnel in police, prosecution, probation, as well as less money for treating drug and substance abuse, and less money for education. People who are undereducated can't get jobs it's a vicious cycle."

Turcmanovich says it is drug abuse, compounded by a poor economy, that seems to be the lead domino, toppling people into committing thefts, assaults, robberies and other crimes.

"People are out of work and hurting," he says. "Their lifeline benefits through government agencies are drying up. People have got to do something to feed themselves and their habits."

Further, "drug crime is not just a local problem any more," Turcmanovich says.

He cited a recent case where two people, Victoria Argott of Lansford and Bonnie J. Vosburgh of Nesquehoning, pleaded guilty in federal court to cocaine trafficking.

"We're dealing with networks, with syndicates," he says. "The small-time dealer is just one tentacle of the octopus. We're not only dealing with the local sales person; the trail leads to their supplier, and the supplier's suppliers. It goes beyond the scope of the local department being able to handle it. We have to bring in state and federal agencies, especially if weapons are involved."

Delaney also cites drug abuse as one reason for the increase in vehicle break-ins and burglaries.

"We've had a rash of burglaries. They mostly tie into drug abuse," he says."Like every other community."

Smith says drugs are a major problem in his borough, too.

"We've always been proactive with drug investigations and drug arrests in Nesquehoning, because it walks hand-in-hand" with other crimes, he says.

Police recently broke up a major drug ring whose members broke into homes to steal televisions, electronics and other valuables to sell for drugs.

"They exchanged (the stolen goods) for heroin, to bring back here to distribute," Smith says.

Summit Hill's Fittos also attributes drugs and unemployment to the rise in thefts in his town.

"There are a lot of people out there who don't care where they get their money from. If they have to steal it from somebody, that's what they're going to do," he says.

Fighting back

Smith cited the "broken window" theory: That broken windows, graffiti, litter, and unchecked weeds diminish the quality of life in towns, inviting crime to take root.

Nesquehoning police, he says, strictly enforce property maintenance code. More importantly, "our residents care about the town," he says. "They report suspicious behavior, especially drug activity. No one wants that here."

Mayor Tony Walck also has a neighborhood crime watch, Smith says.

Ondrus is another strong believer in the broken window theory.

"The condition of buildings, the kinds of people coming in and the types of crimes committed" are all related," he says. "Nobody wants to move into a dirty town. Here, housing prices are cheap, and so they are attractive to out of town landlords (who rent to less than desirable tenants). They are the ones that draw the most resources: Ambulances for overdoses, fire department calls, police calls. And the good taxpayers are paying for all that."

Fittos agrees more police on the streets is a deterrent.

"I think police presence is a big factor. We've known from interviewing criminals after they have straightened their lives out that seeing a police car curbed them from doing something," he says.

"More cops on the street" is the most obvious answer, Delaney says. "It's a deterrent, one which Coaldale doesn't have any more. Treatment centers would help, too. We have a lot of drug related crimes."

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