City police, along with the mayor and codes officials, have begun to lead large bands of city residents, including children, behind them as they close down rental properties suspected of illegal drug and firearm activity.
After their first such effort over the weekend, City Council President Bill Hall said he is alarmed by the use of unarmed civilians, some of whom are children.
"I'm all for police and codes doing their jobs under the rental ordinance," Hall said regarding Friday's posting of two city properties. Each was closed for six months under the law enacted Jan. 1. "I think it's unwise to put unarmed civilians in harm's way."
He stood firm in his belief that an innocent person could be injured or killed if the individual behind the door at a suspected property was armed and shot through it.
"Open the door," police officers yelled during the Friday closure of a property in the 700 block of Hepburn Street. "Police."
It was one of the first walk-alongs with members of Team Williamsport, a newly formed citizens group intended to help police tackle nuisance properties and drug-related crime, particularly heroin.
Police go in first
Standing behind police and spread across the front lawn at the Hepburn Street property were about 35 members of Team Williamsport. Police Chief Gregory A. Foresman, Mayor Gabriel J. Campana, Assistant Police Chief Timothy Miller and Joseph Gerardi, codes administrator, walked with the group to the properties, including another in the 1100 block of West Fourth Street.
"I would never put anyone in harm's way if I knew that was going to be the issue," Foresman said of the activity. "For anyone to make that suggestion, it is just ludicrous."
Foresman said police go in first while civilians wait outside "to ensure there are not going to be confrontations."
"People come along to support our action," he said. "The suspects were either not in there or they're incarcerated on criminal charges."
At the Hepburn Street property, a young woman opened the door of an apartment and politely was told by police and Gerardi to gather her belongings because the building was being closed for up to six months by city codes.
Campana said the decision to participate in Team Williamsport and to accompany police lies with the members, not city officials.
"It's the constitutional right of the parents if they want to bring kids," Campana said. "All he (Hall) wants to do is complain and not do his homework and create more problems by not supporting a common-sense initiative to cut crime."
The mayor claimed the group is voluntary.
"Team Williamsport is led by the general public, not me," Campana said. "The public decided to voluntarily follow us. We had police there to protect the public in case there was a problem. Once again, Hall has opened up his mouth without thinking or doing his homework."
"How did Team Williamsport know that a police operation was going to take place?" Hall asked.
"We invited people along to see how many would show up," Foresman said. "We wanted to allow them to see how the process worked. If they liked it, we encourage them to come along with us on further adventures."
Newberry residents Richard Bates and his fiancee, Shiri Milheim, are chairing Team Williamsport. They explained the group's goals and said the members' passion outweighs fear of lawbreakers.
According to the team's mission statement, the group's purpose is to inform fellow citizens of the various troubles that face the community. "We are a diverse group of people committed to finding solutions that will last by the offering of our time, insights and perspectives," Bates said
"We unite to improve our quality of life while building stronger relationships with each other, our members of law enforcement and our elected officials," he said.
Bates said he was no more intimidated at the walk than when he attended a visitation by the president of the United States, which came with armed security and Secret Service.
Asked what the next goal for the group might be, Bates said continuing to educate members how the court system works.
"We're not encouraging people to attend courtroom hearings or arraignments for the purpose of pressuring or intimidating. I want that to be clear," he said. "I would encourage people to attend (hearings) to educate themselves and see firsthand how the system works, because many in the community are very naive.
"We're just hoping to grow," Bates said. As of this week, the membership had reached 200 people, he said.