Two murders a month apart and a bank robbery last week in Hazleton led state Rep. Tarah Toohil to seek help from the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office.
Toohil said agents from the attorney general’s Bureau of Narcotics Investigations already support Hazleton police.
“But we need more boots on the ground,” Toohil said. “We’re going to take a stand in Hazleton. We’re not going to take it.”
Nils Frederiksen, spokesman for the attorney general, said the office has resources to help.
“We have a very good working relationship with not only local police in Hazleton, but the entire Luzerne County Drug Task Force,” Frederiksen said.
Historically, the office has joined with local police to crack major drug rings, which took years to develop.
To supplement manpower, Hazleton police Chief Frank DeAndrea said he regularly relies on agents from the attorney general’s office, the FBI, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Department of Homeland Security and the state police, including their auto theft task force.
“There is absolutely no way that the City of Hazleton can afford to police the City of Hazleton without as much help as possible,” DeAndrea said.
For example, Hazleton Detective Anthony White works for the state police’s auto task force, even though he spends most of his time – 95 percent, the chief estimated – in Hazleton.
“Any time he is doing something, he can reach to his unit and get four, five, six guys to help him,” DeAndrea said of White.
Similarly, Hazleton receives help from the FBI because a city detective works with the bureau’s gang task force. Hazleton will be assigning an officer to the DEA’s task force to replace a detective who recently retired.
From the DEA, Hazleton receives money confiscated from criminals. The funds help Hazleton police buy equipment, including the last two patrol cars the city purchased. This year, Hazleton will receive $300,000 of seized funds.
Eleven members of the Hazleton Police Department serve on the state attorney general’s task force. They work regular shifts in Hazleton, but the state pays their overtime to work elsewhere.
In return, the task force assigns officers and provides surveillance, listening devices and other equipment for investigations in Hazleton.
“We would never be able to do what we do without their help,” DeAndrea said.
Hazleton has 36 police officers, whereas guidelines based on population suggest that the city needs as many as 60.
Last week, the officers answered 586 calls. DeAndrea hopes reports slow, because that rate projects to 30,472 calls a year, or more than one for every resident of Hazleton.
“That’s incredibly busy for a department that is understaffed,” he said.
Toohil said drugs and gang issues factor into Hazleton’s crime, as does the MinSec correctional facility.
MinSec is a private facility that houses and provides services for inmates through contracts with the state Department of Corrections. Inmates obtain passes to work and to receive treatment outside of the facility in the Altamont Building.
Toohil said she regularly speaks to corrections department officials about MinSec. She supported a law enacted in July that prevents the department from sending pre-release inmates, those who haven’t served their full sentences, to MinSec or halfway houses in other communities. Pre-release inmates generally pose a greater threat to the community, Toohil has said.
On Sept. 7, a MinSec inmate who had a pass to go to therapy was charged with robbing the First National Community Bank, two blocks from the halfway house.
MinSec officials quickly helped police identify the man from photos taken at the bank.
DeAndrea said federal prosecutors agreed to pursue the case against the defendant in the bank robbery, as they did with two men charged in a string of convenience store robberies. Federal charges generally carry longer sentences; and when federal prosecutors and agents take charge, Hazleton police can shift to other cases.
DeAndrea said finds no fault with MinSec, which follows rules set by the Corrections Department, but said the department’s rules shouldn’t allow prisons in the center of cities as small as Hazleton.
“When they do that they’re relocating gang members from other areas of the state to Luzerne County,” DeAndrea said.
To go free, residents of MinSec must find a home and a job so they tend to settle in Hazleton when released. They also start relationships with local women so family ties keep them in Hazleton. Gang members who visit friends in MinSec and otherwise wouldn’t have come to Hazleton see the city as a place where they could sell drugs or run other illegal activities, the chief said.
If the department can’t close MinSec immediately, DeAndrea said the department should only assign people who committed crimes in Luzerne County to the facility. Now MinSec houses people from several surrounding counties.
Lew Dryfoos III, the former chairman of the Greater Hazleton Chamber of Commerce, said the state shifts costs to Hazleton by basing MinSec in the city. Crimes committed by people who only are in Hazleton because of MinSec add to the work of local police courts and prosecutors, he said. Hospitals provide emergency care to inmates. Businesses paid to install cameras and security and may lose customers deterred from going downtown.
“It seems only fair to me that the community should be reimbursed with some of the savings. Significant help for Hazleton’s police force would be an important part of this, but obviously not the only part,” Dryfoos said in an email.
Meanwhile, no connections surfaced so far between MinSec and the murders of Aaron Reznick, who died Aug. 12 after being beaten nine days earlier, or of Erick Gwaltney, who was shot to death at Fourth and Alter streets on Sept. 1. DeAndrea said federal immigration agents helped investigate Gwaltney’s death, even though it is unknown if immigrants participated in the crime. The agents were willing to help based on the possibility that immigration could have been a factor, the chief said.
Police made no arrests for Gwaltney’s death.
Officers have charged two young men in Reznick’s murder.
Toohil and DeAndrea hope to meet later this month with representatives of the Attorney General, the state police and the Governor’s Office.
“I’m begging to the state police and the Attorney General for resources,” Toohil said.