On Sunday night, at least six local police departments, along with the Pennsylvania State Police and FBI, participated in the frantic search for a missing 7 year-old girl. Nazareth was in virtual lockdown as helicopters circled overhead and cruisers raced through town, looking for a mysterious Subaru that seemed to be everywhere and nowhere. The search was eventually called off because, as time ticked away, it appears there never was a missing girl. The supposed abductors may have engaged in an elaborate and cruel hoax. More likely, someone just misunderstood what he or she saw. Police really had no choice but to do what they did. But this tremendous expenditure of manpower shows a serious weakness in the Nazareth Police Department. Under Chief Thomas Trachta, all attempts at community policing have ceased. Had they been in place, this may never have happened.
Yesterday, I told you that there's supposed to be a special police detail at the Borough Park on weekends, from 4 pm until sunset. This detail lasts until the bathrooms are closed for the winter. But Chief Trachta, in a September 1 memo, ended the detail early, though it was part of the approved budget. Had an officer been at the park, it is certainly possible that what was perceived to be an abduction would still have occurred. But it would have been far more unlikely.
Before Trachta became Chief, Nazareth had established a fairly effective community policing program. Trachta ended it. Jack Herbst, a former member of Borough Council Police Committee Chair, explains. "The first decision he made when appointed Chief was to eliminate the community policing policies that Chief Sinclair put in place - crime watch meetings, park officers and bank and business checks."
This is simply insane. According to The National Institute of Justice, in police departments that have tried community policing for just one year, "99 percent reported improved cooperation between citizens and police, 80 percent reported reduced citizens’ fear of crime, and 62 percent reported fewer crimes against persons."
Those business checks were appreciated, as owners sometimes forgot to lock up when they leave for the day. The banks loved it.
Officer Fred Lahovski, who with former Chief Michael Sinclair was a community policing advocate, was ordered to send a notice to local businesses, announcing this termination. "Some time ago, 2008-2009, the police attempted a specific community policing service. It included walking patrol in the business district as well as a month community police meeting. However, due to a variety of circumstances, the program has ceased as a viable entity."
Lahovski attempted to establish an email database for local businesses and residents. For something as simple as a found dog, Officer Lahovski could send a blanket email with pictures and a note like this: "This little guy was found in the unit block of Belvidere St. We got along well after he straightened me and let me know who was boss. We held him for awhile unfortunately had to turn him over to the SPCA. If you know this dog or his owner, please help. FREDDY"
If this could work for a lost dog, it would certainly be something to use when a potential child abduction occurs.
Chief Trachta refused to use the email database. So on Sunday night, when there could have been a real missing child, the public was kept in the dark.
"We can't just blindly give out a description when things are still unfolding," Mayor Carl Strye, a carwash salesman, told The Morning Call. Why the hell not? I'd think that would be the first thing police would do, and would be one way in which the public could assist. Instead, people who were just walking the street at night were accosted and asked what they were doing.
Instead of reaching out to the public, Trachta treats them with disdain.
According to Herbst, "He is the first Chief not to go out on patrol, show his presence at Borough events and refuses to give an extra second of his time to the community. After meeting nights, he'll show up to the office later the next day based on how long the meeting went the night before. Wonder why Bushkill Twp. got to the park before him! I'm surprised that he even showed up at all, but I guess when the big boys got involved, he had no choice."
Numerous police departments responded on Sunday night for a search that really had to occur. But did Trachta call in his officers? No. Instead of calling on all the manpower he had, he let other departments do the work.
They know it, too. One fellow I know was stopped by a fed last night, and asked if he saw anything unusual. This federal officer told a citizen that if he saw anything odd or suspicious, to please call 911. Then as he left, he said, "I got to go see what Cupcake is doing."
Nazareth needs to re-institute community policing. There should be a block watch, business checks, foot patrols. Most importantly, there really needs to be an officer on beat at the park, especially on weekends.