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PSU Altoona patrols possible

Safety program uses students as auxiliary officers

October 21, 2013
By William Kibler (bkibler@altoonamirror.com) , The Altoona Mirror

State College restaurant owner Dave Krauth thinks it works.

Fellow borough restaurateur Panayiotis Beloyeannis thinks it probably doesn't.

The Downtown Safety Enhancement Program is a 9-year-old partnership between Penn State University police, State College police and the Downtown Improvement District, employing college students as auxiliary officers patrolling in uniform to deter crime by their presence, report potential trouble and crimes to the borough department and to serve as court witnesses.

At the suggestion of Altoona Mayor Bill Schirf, the city and Logan Township police departments and Penn State Altoona recently began discussing the feasibility of replicating the program here.

"It can only help," said Schirf, who learned about the program at a Pennsylvania Municipal League conference in June.

The student officers - many of them criminology majors - provide "eyes and ears" for borough police from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday, said State College Police Chief Tom King, with individuals working about 20 hours a week.

Up to four of them are on patrol at any one time, working alone or in pairs.

They come from a pool of about 20, who are among the most experienced of about 150 auxiliary officers who work exclusively on campus, directing traffic and staffing events.

The downtown auxiliary officers carry walkie-talkies, but no weapons, detain no one and don't approach anyone who may be causing trouble, according to King.

They can follow at a distance, however, to help borough police track troublemakers down, King said.

Penn State supplies the auxiliary officers and their training, equipment and administrative supervision, the borough department provides field supervision and the downtown organization provides the funding, according to Steve Shelow, assistant vice president for police and public safety at Penn State.

The auxiliary officers earn between $9.85 and $10.50 an hour, depending on experience, said Lt. Diane Grimm of university police.

"It's good to see them on the street," said Krauth, owner of Rotelli restaurant on Calder Way. "It keeps people in line."

The auxiliary officers tend to patrol where crowds gather outside bars, Krauth said. "It helps negate some negative behavior," he said.

But people tend not to take them seriously, according to Krauth.

"I think [they] see them as mall guards, so to speak," he said.

Beloyeannis, owner of Bell's Greed Pizza, also on Calder Way, doesn't share Krauth's belief in the auxiliary officers' effectiveness.

"I personally don't think they help that much," he said. "The few times I've seen them in the vicinity, the effect is the same as if they were not there."

If there's a fight, public urination or vandalism, the auxiliary officers report it, but by the time borough police arrive, the trouble's generally over, he said.

Still, he can't deny their presence may have prevented problems like fights, he said.

Generally, business owners appreciate the auxiliary officers the most, Grimm said.

But in police work, you can never really measure what you prevent, she said. "[It's] the million-dollar question."

Regardless, it's fitting that Penn State helps provide the means to enforce laws its students sometimes break, she said.

Their presence signals to regular residents that students aren't always "draining" the community, King said.

And even though they don't have full police powers, they may relate better to other students, their peers, who may resent "big brother," as embodied by the borough officers, King said.

Even so, some of those fellow students sometimes call the auxiliary officers by derogatory names, like "rent-a-cop," Grimm said.

But that just "rolls off their back," she said.

The work helps the auxiliary officers who may end up pursuing law enforcement careers because they learn patrol techniques, radio communication, report writing and how to testify in court, King said.

Grimm isn't sure how the program would translate to Altoona, however.

Compared to State College's pedestrian-dominated downtown, Altoona's downtown is moribund.

The traffic here is mainly in Pleasant Valley, and that's almost exclusively vehicular.

Still, "there's nothing saying you can't put eyes and ears in a car," Grimm said.

There's also nothing to prevent auxiliary officers from patrolling residential neighborhoods, she said.

Schirf envisions the auxiliary officers working in Wehnwood and Juniata in the city and at student housing developments like Nittany Pointe, which is in the township.

By preventing problems in trouble spots, the auxiliary officers would reduce departmental workloads in the city and township, the mayor said.

Still, it was never his intention that the program ought to be a stop-gap policing supplement in response to the city's Act 47 recovery plan capping of the police department at 66 officers - down from 74 in previous years, he said.

Penn State Altoona spokeswoman Marissa Carney said it's premature for the campus to comment.

City Police Chief Janice Freehling said she didn't know whether the program would be feasible here.

"But it's definitely something worth looking into," she said.

It's intriguing, agreed Logan Township Police Chief Ron Heller.

"If it puts more bodies out there, it certainly would help," he said.

"Extra eyes and ears anywhere are helpful," Grimm said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

 
 
 

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