Mayor details tactics against heroin siege

The re-emergence of a city police team known as the Special Operations Group, dressed in black for effect, and better use of manpower and technology to try to stop a rise in heroin and violent crime are initiatives Mayor Gabriel J. Campana wants to see immediately employed.

In an interview Monday, after Friday’s statements by District Attorney Eric R. Linhardt detailing a rise in local heroin use and new initiatives his agency will use to combat the problem, Campana and city Police Chief Gregory A. Foresman defined their crime-fighting goals.

“There has definitely been a rise in heroin use and some incidents, such as shootings and violence, on the increase,” Campana said. “Heroin is definitely a big issue,” Foresman added.

The mayor has authorized police to re-start a Special Operations Group, a tactical team that operated in the city between 2008 and 2009.

Officers in the unit will wear all black, with the goal of drug interdiction. Saturation patrols by officrs, who may not be in all black clothing, will be done by city polic and Pennsylvania College of Technology police in some neighborhoods, Foresman said.

“It’s all about drug interdiction,” he said, adding that “the city was (already) looking at many of the initiatives spoken of by the district attorney.”

“We always felt the Special Operations Group was a proactive measure and we believe with the recent shootings and a perception of a rise in crime and people who don’t feel safe, it will benefit the city,” he said.

The participating officers can identify people in the community, through their knowledge of who is on the streets and dealing drugs and hopefully they can make arrests, Foresman said.

The new initiatives will cost additional money the city does not necessary have, according to Campana.

“We’re asking the District Attorney’s office for some dollars,” Campana said, citing every attempt to prevent overtime expenses, but recognizing that it is likely to be needed.

“We’re going to stay within the police budget of $7.1 million,” Campana promised.

Foresman said the group would be flexible. As for the black clothing and reasons why, Campana said it sends an image.

“Believe me, when the public sees them in black – it will get their attention.”

The Special Operations Group is to aggressively patrol the streets of the city, not only its parks, he said.

Campana said his intention is to hire two more police officers using an amended Department of Justice COPS Hiring Grant of $419,000 that was unanimously approved by City Council, and one that council won’t have to vote on because it is an amendment. “I was notified last week of our approval,” he said.

Foresman said the department was unable to use the $419,000 grant it had acquired two years ago because the complement was not kept up to 52, as required in the original grant.

“We went back to the department to ask for permission to amend it to be able to receive it and keep the complement as is,” Foresman said. “The decision returned said the minimal complement can be 49 and the grant would pay for two officers, bringing the complement to 51,” Foresman said.

Strings that are attached to the grant are the city must pay for the salaries and benefits of the two officers in the fourth year of the grant, according to Foresman, who estimated that cost to be around $160,000.

Campana said the cost for the grant can be paid for through savings the city will see after he was able to have the police union and the administration renegotiate a police contract.

Specially, he said, the savings will come from any newly hired officers, who must now contribute toward their family’s health insurance.