July 18, 2008

Residents: Police Too Aggressive

By Stephanie Lasota, Republican & Herald, Pottsville, Pa.

Jul. 18--PINE GROVE -- More than 50 residents and business owners convened to discuss with borough council the loss of business in the borough due to an alleged overly-aggressive police force.

Last Thursday, concerned business owners Craig Werner, of Werner Lumber Company, Steve Frantz, of Steve Frantz Insurance, and Jim Daubert, of Daubert Distributors, were delegated as speakers during a special meeting on the same issue that more than 70 business owners and residents attended.

The men requested last Thursday's meeting, convening with Mayor Morris S. Williams and council Vice President Ron Miko, also chairman of the Public Safety Committee.

Thursday's special meeting was called by the council.

"These people didn't come here at three o'clock in the afternoon because they have nothing to do. This is amazing," Werner said Thursday.

"We understand, but this isn't going to be an overnight fix ... Work with us to work with you," Miko said.

Werner said that Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program inspections are hurting the borough's local businesses by causing trucking and freight companies to avoid the borough, complicating their contractual relationships with local businesses.

Werner said a driver from one of his business' partner trucking companies was pulled over for a minor violation and given a difficult time by an inspecting officer. Subsequently, Werner said many drivers were telling him they would avoid the borough from now on because of the inspections.

Chief Joshua N. Reager said after the meeting that two part-time officers are MCSAP certified, meaning they can perform commercial vehicle safety inspections.

"Out of all the MCSAP inspections that we do, nearly 30 percent of the trucks inspected are put out of service," Reager said. "If they have a reasonable suspicion to believe there is a problem, they can stop the truck -- just as you do a car."

Frantz, Werner and Daubert wrote in a informational packet distributed last Thursday that "at least two companies in the Pine Grove area have suppliers, who refuse to deliver within the borough limits, because of police actions" and "one local truck company refuses to have any of its fleet of trucks enter borough limits after a company vehicle was fined $100+ for an empty windshield washer tank."

Richard Berger, co-owner of Berger's Market on Lovers Lane, said one of his partner trucking companies were also affected.

"I have 75 employees that depend on freight and I need freight," he said.

Council President Timothy Peters said the borough began the truck inspections in 2004 because heavy trucks were breaking water lines.

Although the original motive of last week's meeting was a trucking and loss-of-business issue, other residents complained at both meetings of harassment and improper conduct by police officers in past incidents.

Last week the borough council announced a new police department citizen compliment, concern or complaint policy in order to investigate allegations.

Williams said Thursday since last week's meeting, the police department has been addressed as a whole.

"We did not tell them not to write tickets. We didn't tell them that," Williams said. "But we did tell them to be more professional and be courteous when approached."

Residents also voiced outrage over the council budgeting $34,000 for anticipated borough citations.

Peters said the amount of citations to date is $27,100.

"Officers were never told to go out and write tickets," he said.

He addressed several questions listed on the business owners' informational packet last week.

When asked by residents if the borough thinks there is a problem with the police department, Peters said, "Yes, we are recognizing there is a problem."

Residents also noted Williams' silence Thursday, asking why he did not answer most questions on the police issues, letting council members speak for him during the meeting.

Williams said after the meeting he sometimes feels his mayoral positions is undermined, but that he also appreciates the council's help.

"This is going to take time. The police have got a bad reputation and it's going to take time to fix it," Williams said.

"Nobody on this council makes any decisions for the police department," Miko said at the meeting.

Several business owners and truck drivers lingered Thursday after the meeting adjourned at 4:16 p.m. for an informal discussion with council members.

"The business owners who want to solve the problem, the ones that stayed after and sat down to talk ... That's how this thing will get solved," Reager said.

He added that officers are not walking around with a negative attitude thinking the "world's against them."

"We need to bridge the gap with the business owners," he said.


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