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South Williamsport officials look to modernize police, municipal facilities

KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette The South Williamsport Police Department on West Southern Ave. in South Williamsport.

When a member of the public walks into a police department headquarters, the state of the physical building often sets how well they perceive the police force as being able to do their jobs, according to Norm Hager, interim South Williamsport police chief.

While South Williamsport Police’s building is operational, Hager wants to see the building modernized to provide South Williamsport with the best law enforcement possible.

The 1970s-built building, renovated around the year 2004, was designed for a smaller police force that would exclusively cover South Williamsport Borough. The police force uniformed seven officers around the time of the renovations, while it has grown to 10 officers in present day, with an additional likely on the way, according to borough manager Steve Capelli.

Now, South Williamsport’s police force, in the words of Capelli, has outgrown the facility. And while Hager said the borough has always managed to find space for the police, the current building leaves much to be desired.

“If two officers had to share a desk, we could make it work.” Hager said. “[But] it’s a matter of growth and modernization. Everything is antiquated.”

“We would never be able to get MOPEC accreditation,” Capelli said. “That’s the gold standard for having a safe and secure law enforcement operation center.”

The building lacks secure exterior parking, and large windows on the exterior of the building present a security risk.

Additionally, the current facility requires officers to bring individuals in custody throughout the police department before they can place them in a holding cell.

“You want to limit that exposure as much as you can,” Capelli said.

This led South Williamsport to begin planning a new municipal government center that would include a law enforcement component. The borough settled on designs for the building last fall, according to Capelli.

“We’re looking at designing and constructing a 21st century facility the borough won’t outgrow that will be as convenient and accommodating to citizens as one can hope for,” Capelli said.

The building plans show exactly how these problems are addressed.

The new building positions the municipal offices in the front of the building, with the police department located in the back. A secure fenced-in area gives police officers an opportunity to scan their way through an enclosed gate and park in a larger garage that will allow patrol vehicles to be securely parked.

The garage features a divided stall where officers can bring individuals in custody and transport them directly to holding cells beside the garage, which prevents access, visibility and exposure to other parts of the garage or building.

The new department headquarters will also do away with first-floor windows as a security measure–glass panes along the top of rooms will allow natural light in, but the department will be retiring the several-feet-tall windows it has in its current building.

Hager said a sophisticated evidence room with a processing center will help officers maintain efficiency, while a secure armory, enclosed behind walls of concrete, will prevent weapons or other department tools from falling into hands they do not belong in.

Locker rooms will not be present in the building; instead, a shower and bathroom area will enable more privacy for officers cleaning up before court or after a patrol during which they got dirty. Another feature is a break room where officers can eat and take breaks separate from the work environment.

The crime division will find a home upstairs separate from other officers’ station to allow a more focused environment. Additionally, a bunk room will allow officers to sleep at the station between shifts, or relax on their time off. Finally, a training room will allow officers to learn new skills, with the possibility of exercise equipment to help them keep in shape for duty.

The building will also modernize other features of the police department. Hager said a decision has not yet been made regarding the front reception area; either the department’s secretary will be shielded by bullet-resistant glass, or will alternatively speak to visitors through a computer monitor.

Redoing the entire building from the ground up will allow new technologies such as ethernet cables to push security monitoring forward as well.

“When a department modernizes, it allows them to be more productive,” Hager said. “We can process evidence faster and better. [The officers] having their own workplace makes them more efficient,” Hager said.

As technology progresses faster and faster into a digitally modern era, Hager said the department needs to evolve too.

“It’s 2021,” Hager said. “We’re at a spot where we have to come into the modern age.”

Now, the borough needs to look for funding and collaborations that could lead to joint use of new or current space to help make the project completable. Fortunately for the borough, they have the pledged support of the county commissioners.

“We’ve got a really good trio of commissioners who are looking outside the box to not only find ways to support and assist county public safety, but also see how that can assist the city, borough and the greater Williamsport area,” Capelli said.

Capelli has also indicated to the commissioners that South Williamsport would further adjust the designs of the building to accommodate the county coroner in the event that county plans to find a new home for the coroner’s office do not come to fruition.

According to Capelli, the borough’s current plans for its building are to form a partnership with a private developer who will lease the building rather than own it. The borough hopes to pay a monthly lease rather than taking on the debt.

“We want to look at traditional and unconventional means to have a better understanding of financial support we may receive,” Capelli said. “I want to make sure we get the funding and we design it adequately so we can’t outgrow it.

“I think we’ve reached a point in Williamsport where the right people are talking to the right people, and the right ideas are being shared and vetted. Those investments will lead to positive and concrete policies and programs we haven’t seen before. That bodes well for everyone.”

“State and federal funding are critical,” Capelli said. “Can we do it within our current budget without a tax increase?”

As it stands, the building’s price tag is $5.2 million. South Williamsport has already applied for $2.6 million from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, while it is in the process of applying for $2.6 million more from the federal government.

“I want South Williamsport to take the lead as a modern police force,” Hager said. “This building will be beautiful, it will improve morale, and it will increase professionalism.”

Hager noted public perception of the police department will help instill a surge of confidence and pride in the police. Finally, he said a new, advanced facility will help retain officers in the area, and will attract new talent at the same time.

“We are the bigger and better,” Hager said.

However, police are not the only ones being eyed by the borough to be placed inside this building. Capelli said there have been more global discussions concerning other elements of the borough’s public safety operations, including South Williamsport’s Fire Department.

“All I can say at this point is we have the ability to do more and go bigger,” Capelli said. “We are thinking as broadly as we can.”

Over the past 10 months, the borough’s general staff, council, mayor have offered feedback in addition to the officers.

Once funding for the building is secured, the borough will host a public meeting to allow residents to review the plans and renderings so they know exactly what the borough council is doing.

“Borough Council and the Mayor will have interesting decisions to chew on,” Capelli said.

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