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Allentown police chief candidates meet with residents

The final four candidates for Allentown police chief emphasized the benefits of community policing Thursday night as they faced city residents at a public forum.

The candidates, who were selected from a field of more than 40 people with the help of a consulting firm hired by the city, boasted decades of combined experience, many in major metropolitan police departments.

Mayor Ed Pawlowski soon will nominate his choice for City Council's approval. Residents were invited to meet the candidates at Sacred Heart Hospital.

Each candidate gave a 10- to 15-minute presentation before a crowd of about 60 people before answering questions submitted by residents. All four spoke about plans to implement community policing with more officers on the streets interacting with the residents they serve.

Ronald J. Walsh Jr., deputy inspector for the Nassau County (N.Y.) Police Department and former member of the New York City Police Department, asked residents to close their eyes and envision their ideal Allentown. The reality doesn't match up, he said, but community policing can help to connect the two.

Walsh said he would implement more problem-oriented policing, with officers assigned to each community and held responsible for what goes on there. A similar approach has been successful in Nassau County, he said.

"That is not a program," he said. "It's a philosophy and approach. Trust and confidence is built on the community side."

Joel F. Fitzgerald Sr., chief of police in Missouri City, Texas, and an 18-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department, elaborated on the same idea, emphasizing citizen involvement. Community policing is more than a few selected groups of officers mobilizing the strategy. The strategy should be inherent in all police work, he said.

Some problems in neighborhoods are not police-related, but officers are the most visible conduit to process citizen complaints. Each officer in the department should have the responsibility for communicating those problems upward, Fitzgerald said.

"We often give credit to officers for quantitative productivity," he said. "You've done car stops and you've given a lot of tickets. That's great, but what have you done for the community today?"

Charles W. Rapp, executive director of the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions and former captain of the Baltimore County Police Department, drew parallels between the diversity of Allentown and the territory he policed in Baltimore County.

Allentown is undergoing tremendous change with development in the Neighborhood Improvement Zone, Rapp said, but Center City has a perception problem. The work to change that perception needs to begin immediately, he said.

People need to feel safe, and they need to be safe, Rapp said.

"It's going to boost your business," he said. "It's going to be great for the city and great for the residents."

Theodore D. Kohuth, retired police chief of Whitehall Township and a former Pennsylvania State Police captain, emphasized his local ties, noting he was born at Sacred Heart.

Community policing doesn't mean being soft on crime, he said. Allentown police must work to disrupt the drug trade and dismantle gangs, but that will require officers to get out of their cars and work with the residents, he said.

Kohuth pledged to meet with community groups to create an environment of inclusiveness.

"I am a known commodity to the people of Allentown. The good citizens of the Lehigh Valley know and trust me," he said. "I will require no learning curve."

Allentown launched a search for a new police chief this year in response to the planned retirement of Chief Roger MacLean, who left the force in September under a deferred retirement plan offered by the city after a rash of retirements in 2005.

The city hired Robert Wasserman, chairman and principal of the Massachusetts-based Strategic Policy Partnership, to lead a national search for MacLean's replacement. Wasserman has assisted with chief searches in cities including Milwaukee and South Bend, Ind.

Pawlowski said he will meet with each candidate today and make his selection in the next couple of days.

eopilo@mcall.com

610-820-6522

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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