Police meet with public to talk about ‘team’ idea

Team Williamsport, a citizens’ advocacy group, wants to find solutions and develop a closer relationship with police.

The common problem for police and the community is a heroin epidemic.

One drug selling “crew” was said to be earning $35,000 a week, city Police Chief Gregory A. Foresman said during the second Team Williamsport meeting at City Hall. Alarming reports such as this from police were shared. Members listened. They told stories of their personal struggle with drugs and the need for including the recovery community in programs.

They also implored the media not to find fault with their mistakes and to focus on positive efforts.

The main purpose of the team is to inform fellow residents and non-residents alike of the various troubles that face the community, according to part of the group’s mission statement. It’s also meant to create an atmosphere where neighbors look out for each other and deal with minor indiscretions that police normally have been having to respond.

The department has 48 officers and responds to 15,000 calls for service per year.

Police are trying to make arrests in a city and region in a full-scale heroin siege, according to city Assistant Chief Timothy Miller, who developed the team concept after three months of researching various programs.

If fewer nuisance calls for service are handled by police, that gets patrol officers to focus on more serious crimes and on crime prevention, he said.

The team members communicate in various ways, and the idea is taking off through its own Facebook page.

Privately, some members of the county government shared with the Sun-Gazette they want to see its members be less unilateral in their direction.

Mayor Gabriel J. Campana agreed with that premise, encouraging one or two members to attend different meetings such as the county’s Heroin Task Force.

Miller said the drug problem is bigger than the police and community can image.

“I’m trying to change the perception of the police in the community,” Miller said to the Sun-Gazette a day before the meeting.

Using what has been described as out-of-the-box thinking, Miller said he wants all comers on the team, and not only Soccer moms, but also drug dealers who’ve turned their lives around, recovering addicts, who can share their former lifestyle and those previous labeled with the stigma of being associated with addiction.

Miller said he will continue to share the concept with the 48-member police staff and it will be asked to partner with the community.

“It’s not easy for police to look citizens in the eye and ask for help,” he said.

Miller spoke of the urgency with the recent arrest of Jason T. Talini, 39, of the city, a 15-year veteran of the U.S. Army who was “crying like a baby” in his presence.

Talini acknowledged he committed three robberies, including a hold up at the Cinema Center Monday afternoon due to his addiction to heroin, Miller said.

“I believe in consequences for their actions but these are also human beings,” Miller said.

Then, testimonials were given, such as those from Bruce Lundrigan, a social worker and a former Navy Seal involved in a community recovery initiative.

Lundrigan told the Sun-Gazette the egos have got to be dropped and the teamwork be the main focus or the dealers will keep supplying a growing need. He said the team must bring the recovery community into its programs.

“If the community changes its beliefs, people will want to conform,” Lundrigan said.

The group plans to continue to meet regularly and focus further on its action plan. It may next try “living room conversations,” a chat session between residents and police at the home of a willing host.

Police administration also will continue to tell the patrol officers to get out of their vehicles and interact as much as possible with the community, particularly the youth.

“We need to build youth relationships,” Miller said.

Members reacted by taking offense to City Council President Bill Hall and others on council questioned the wisdom of exposing unarmed civilians, including children, when police and codes officers are conducting official business.

It was the first official event Team Williamsport tried out and it drew attention, some of it critical.

“Our righteous heart is bigger than any media or politician,” said Rick Bates, co-chairman of the group.

Miller said the first activity, the walk with police and codes officers to post eviction notices at suspected drug houses on Hepburn and West Fourth streets, was meant as an “attention getter.”

In days to come, the group said it may also have a less dramatic presence at holiday events, such as Set the Night to Music on July 4, at First Fridays and may plan to hold clean ups at cemeteries and parks and dinners at Memorial Park.

City Councilman N. Clifford “Skip” Smith, chairman of the city public safety committee, said knowledge is power and there is strength in numbers.

“That’s where we can make a difference as a group when we work together and function as a group,” he said.

“Folks, you have power to make a difference and it’s more than any police department can make on its own,” Miller said.