Berks Summit produces plans to tackle crime

Photo by Lynn A. Gladieux U.S. Senator Bob Casey addressing the crowd after the Berks County Summit addressing crime. With him is Governor Tom Corbett.

There is no easy solution to solving crime in Berks County.

That was the consensus reached by the more than 100 in attendance at the Crowne Plaza in Wyomissing on Jan. 18 for the Berks County and Greater Reading Crime Summit.

The two-hour, closed-door summit, which drew Governor Tom Corbett and U.S. Senators Patrick Toomey and Robert P. Casey Jr., was a collaboration of local, state and federal officials along with area business leaders brought together to discuss effective solutions to combat violent crime in the county.

Berks County Commissioners Chairman Christian Y. Leinbach, a Tilden Township Republican and one of the event’s key participants, helped organize the event along with Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams and Reading retailer Albert R. Boscov.

Leinbach said that the 34 participants in the core group of summit participants hammered out five key points on which to focus.

Leinbach said the summit went “very well” and that he, along with Adams and Reading Mayor Vaughn D. Spencer, will issue a progress report on those points within 30 days.

Casey, a Scranton Democrat, said the summit produced a thoughtful and wide-ranging discussion about local crime challenges. He said he was encouraged by the progress made.

“We had a very good discussion about the challenges Reading and the county face. Many of these challenges are faced by communities across the commonwealth,” he said.

Casey went on to say that “any problem that relates to crime and violence in the community isn’t something that only that community should deal with. We have to bring folks together like we did today.”

Adams said a major focus of the discussion was on the lack of manpower his office faces in dealing with crime. He said funding for police officers and other law enforcement officials must be dealt with through the legislature if crime is to be curbed.

“We can’t just throw money at the problem,” he said, “but our legislators will have to address the specifics. Nobody wants to raise taxes.”

Yet getting help from the state won’t be easy. Speaking publicly after the summit, Corbett said funding sources will have to be found locally.

“I have committed our resources as much as we can. All of us have limited financial resources,” he said.

Corbett encouraged local officials to visit Altoona in Blair County to review their efforts to address crime. There they have designed a program similar to Weed and Seed, a joint federal-state-local program that aims to prevent and reduce violent crime and gang activity in high-crime neighborhoods. Altoona’s program, while designed with the federal program in mind, is almost exclusively funded by local businesses and residents.

Statistics show that in comparison to other major cities in Pennsylvania, Reading ranks in the middle when it comes to violent crime. The perception that Reading is a dangerous place to live and work is one that Adams would like to dispel.

“As the statistics show, Reading and Berks County are safer than the perception,” Adams said, referring to a hand-out on crime statistics within the state prepared by his office. “People who live in Reading and Berks County are safer than in some other cities.”

One item on Adams’ wish list is National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, or NIBIN, technology. Adams said he asked federal representatives to pay the $289,000 cost of the system, which could help county and city investigations of gun crimes. Casey said his staff and county representatives will have future discussions about the NIBIN.

Toomey, who issued a press release after the summit, said he believes the discussion was a good start and that he is looking ahead to further talks on the tough issue of tackling crime.

“I’m looking forward to working with this group of community leaders as we continue this dialogue to help bring about meaningful change to the city and to the Berks County region,” he said.

County Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt, a South Heidelberg Township Democrat, said it is this kind of discussion -- between elected officials and law enforcement at the federal, state and local level -- that is the first step in putting everyone strategically on the same page.

“I certainly understand the culture of violence and crime involves a multi-pronged approach. Poverty, education, culture and job creation are just a few of the other spokes in the wheel,” he said, “and the community needs to be part of the solution.”

But Barnhardt cited drugs and alcohol as major ingredients in the majority of crime activity and called for renewed efforts by the city to tackle those challenges. He referred specifically to Operation Night Light, a collaborative program previously run by county and city law enforcement officials in an effort to target repeat offenders and reduce recidivism.

Modeled after a program developed in Boston and started in 2003, Operation Night Light sends law enforcement officers along with probation officers to a probationer’s home in the evening to monitor compliance.

“I would like to see renewal of Operation Night Light to crack down on bars and clubs and the criminal element in attendance as well as multi-jurisdictional task forces to root out drug activity,” Barnhardt said. “Initiatives like these are being planned.”

Adams said his office will do everything it can to expand law enforcement’s presence on the streets and that he, too, would like to see renewal of the Operation Night Light program. “We will reach deep down and make people know law enforcement is out there and that people are safe,” he said.

As for the formation of a task force, Adams was less optimistic. “Because of the limited resources, I cannot guarantee a task force at this point,” he said.

Overall, Adams said he was pleased with the summit and grateful for the opportunity to address some of what he considers the biggest stumbling blocks to tackling crime.

“I look forward to the follow-up and hope we can make some inroads. I want to see smaller groups get together to discuss solutions to crime; the smaller the better and the more we can get accomplished,” he said.

While most participants viewed the summit as a success, some said it was an opportunity missed.

State Representative Mark M. Gillen, a Republican who serves portions of Berks County, said there was nothing startlingly new brought up during the discussions, which he said lacked an emphasis on some of the real problems.

“I think we missed a key opportunity by not looking at or putting an emphasis on the root causes (of crime),” he said. “Dependency on government welfare subsidies and government itself created most of the problems.”

But Gillen conceded the summit was a huge first step in tackling crime.

“The fact that you have this kind of discussion is a large step.”

Five Key Points For Tackling Crime

- Developing a plan to improve cooperation between city and county law enforcement agencies.

- Consolidation of some local police for better efficiency and more regional cooperation within the county and across county borders.

- Securing funding for several federal programs that serve local police.

- Visiting Altoona in Blair County to review their efforts to address crime both in the city and county.

- Forming a joint law enforcement intelligence community comprised of local, state and federal law enforcement officials that will share information.

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