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Tamaqua knocks down crime risk

The crime risk in Tamaqua decreased by 42% over the last 10 years, and now lies well below the national average.

Presenters of a recent “Reducing Crime Seminar” held at the Tamaqua Community Arts Center shared the achievement - and said it was done through targeted efforts by community groups, individuals and the borough police department.

“You’re never going to fight your way out of negative things or crime. You have to address negative issues, but you have to replace it with something positive,” Micah Gursky, executive director of the Tamaqua Community Partnership said of the successful communitywide effort.

In 2013, Tamaqua’s crime risk was about 1.4% higher than the national average, said Alan Lynch, director of safety and security for St. Luke’s University Health Network.

The borough scored a 140 CAP index, which measures Crimes Against People and Crimes Against Property, Lynch said.

To determine the CAP score, local police departments and state police share their tallies of homicides, rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries, larcenies and motor vehicle thefts with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. CrimeCast then compiles CAP Index reports, which measure the likelihood that crime and loss will occur at any address in the United States, he said.

The index scores range from 0 to 2,000, with 0 representing the lowest risk and 100 representing the national average.

Tamaqua’s score of 140, Lynch said, was 1.4 times higher than the national average.

“So, it wasn’t terrible, but there was room for improvement,” Lynch said, noting that it is typical for crime risks scores to increase from year to year.

Tamaqua Police Chief Michael Hobbs had been compiling the numbers and knew many of the department’s calls originated from an area around the Five Points Intersection.

“It’s a highly trafficked area,” he said of the intersection of routes 209 and 309. “Thousands and thousands and thousands of people come through here each day.”

“And it was starting to look kind of rough. We were getting a lot of nuisance calls in this area,” he continued. “When you were driving through it in 2007, 2012, a lot of the buildings looked run down. There were a lot of blighted properties.”

Community officials knew, too, that there were problems in the area. They had begun addressing them in 2011, when the nonprofit Tamaqua Area Community Partnership received a grant from the Local Initiatives Support Organization. Funding would be used to develop and implement a community-driven safety effort. The goal was to organize residents and businesses around issues of blight and crime. The grant would also supplement an already-launched Community Safety Initiative program through LISC that brought together police and others to address safety concerns.

Part of the safety process was the designation of the Tamaqua Safety Corridor, which includes the 100-block of Pine Street, Mauch Chunk Street, Railroad and Center streets- the area where police were getting the most calls.

“We have issues throughout town, but we really focused on the safety corridor,” Hobbs explained.

In 2012, there were 97 calls for serious crimes in the corridor, and Hobbs said many were related to drugs and alcohol. But as safety efforts grew, the numbers would decrease.

“All of a sudden, 2016 came around and we really started working together,” Hobbs said.

And in 2021, calls had decreased by almost half, coming in at 50.

“We went from more reactive to more proactive,” Hobbs said. “We were able to do this because we cleaned up the area a lot more.”

Cleaning up

Gursky explained the strategies and tools that went into “cleaning up” the area.

From police department data, the safety initiative found that many issues also arose from rental properties in the corridor. Bars, as they knew, were also a problem.

The initiative offered property management classes, asked for increase police patrols and held classes for bartenders. It asked volunteers to walk the streets with a “safety audit checklist” to identify problems, Gursky said.

The partnership also received a grant to roll out the “Green Dot” program with Sexual Assault Resource and Counseling Center.

The evidence-based program was developed for college campuses to address power-based personal violence, or things like bullying, rape, sexual assault and harassment. It trains individuals on how to identify and stop violence from happening.

“We trained three or four dozen people in Tamaqua” and passed information to bartenders, Gursky said.

The program also identifies positive places or experiences as “green dots,” and negative ones as “red dots.”

Gursky said “red dot” areas in the corridor included blighted properties, a takeout beer shop, a notorious bar and a liquor store.

In an effort to turn the red dots to green, the partnership would acquire and revamp several blighted properties along Pine and Mauch Chunk streets, and St. Luke’s University Health Network would purchase the liquor store property and a vacant chain store and transform them into a medical center. The beer store would become employee parking for St. Luke’s, and a problematic rental is now the recovery-based Hope & Coffee, thanks to a pledge from Lisa Scheller, president of Silberline Manufacturing in Tamaqua. The partnership also took ownership of a vacant church and a bar, which are now the Tamaqua Community Arts Center and the Tiki Room Rehearsal Studio.

As the red dots were eliminated and became green dots, crime began to decrease.

“The safety corridor would not be the same if Hope & Coffee wasn’t there, or the arts center wasn’t there, or St. Luke’s wasn’t there,” Gursky said. “You could demolish all of them and get rid of the red dots, but you would have nothing. You have to balance it with creating positive opportunities for people to interact with each other and the community.”

Arts and culture

The initiative also introduced programs that used the arts and culture to create a sense of place, Gursky said. The aim was to make people feel connected to a place, so they are less likely to exhibit anti-social behaviors.

The “Tamaqua Has Heart,” “Dear Tamaqua,” “Raw Aspirations” and “Tamaqua Choose Happiness” programs held over the years engaged people in the arts and their community, Gursky said.

He noted that a Gallup poll found that one of the five factors that contributes to a person’s happiness is civic engagement.

“It could be as simple as registering and voting, or it could be donating blood, or volunteering,” he said. “This was about using the arts to do that.”

Tamaqua’s efforts were highlighted by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2021.

It also organized National Nights Out, introduced a Strengthening Families program for youths and their parents or guardians, and a Life Skills training program that encourages Tamaqua Middle School students to stay away from unhealthy behaviors like drugs, alcohol and violence.

“None of this was done easily,” Gursky said. “But it was all done on purpose and it certainly impacted those numbers. So when you say, ‘Did the crime risk just drop on its own?’, I know that for sure that it did not.”

A sign in Hope & Coffee in Tamaqua shows the community spirit that helped the town reduce its crime rate. TIMES NEWS FILE PHOTO
Micah Gursky, executive director of the Tamaqua Area Community Partnership, speaks during a Reducing Crime Seminar held Wednesday from the Tamaqua Community Arts Center. Presenters shared ways the borough was able to bring is crime risk down by 47% over the last decade. JILL WHALEN/TIMES NEWS
Presenters of a recent Reducing Crime Seminar held at the Tamaqua Community Center, are, from left, Alan Lynch, director of safety and security for St. Luke's University Health Network; Micah Gursky, executive director of the Tamaqua Area Community Partnership, and Tamaqua Police Chief Michael Hobbs. JILL WHALEN/TIMES NEWS