Digesting Altoona’s crime report
There is much to like regarding the 2021 crime report issued by Altoona Police Chief Joe Merrill at a City Council meeting Monday.
Unfortunately, there are some things not to like, although not nearly as many as some communities of Altoona’s size, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, are encountering.
Merrill was right in not trying to portray the report as a panacea, but at the same time there are bragging rights of which our city residents can be abundantly proud.
Nevertheless, the bottom line is that there is room for improvement in the city’s crime picture, and the city as a whole needs to reflect on things that are within the department’s and residents’ ability to address.
First, acknowledgment of some of the positive ingredients of the chief’s report, like the fact that, stacked against 2020, the number of serious crimes fell 12%, while less-serious crimes increased by only 3%.
Overall crime was down by less than 1%.
Meanwhile, there was a reduction in fatal drug overdoses, and there were statistically fewer drug crimes, although an asterisk is necessary on that front, as well as regarding the category of drunk-driving arrests.
The asterisks are necessary because the department’s operational strength was only at 51 officers, while the department was budgeted for 62. That means there likely were “holes” in the department’s enforcement efforts because of the manpower shortage.
Hopefully, the shortage is resolved, if not this year then by the end of 2023.
Although Merrill did not paint assaults on officers — 197 in 2021 compared with 116 in 2020 — as the most troubling point of his report, the people of Altoona need to admit that such incidents are deeply problematic, considering what is happening in many other places in this country.
Altoona police officers, who do not get paid anything close to what they are worth to the community, should be respected for their numerous roles beyond direct police work — efforts in which they get out into the community to meet the people who live here.
It is important for children to recognize that police are their friends, not men and women to be feared or disrespected.
That is why children are welcomed when parents take them for visits to the police station and get to see close-up that a police vehicle contains much more “interesting stuff” than what is in Mom and Dad’s vehicle.
As for other negatives that people of Altoona need to consider, there are the increases in drug overdoses, the rate of juvenile crime and the fact that the troubling number of repeat juvenile offenders implies that many will carry their lawlessness into adulthood, challenging the city in future years.
That evokes the question: What are some parents thinking? Why are more parents not interacting with police more often about what they as parents should be doing to try to help their children understand the consequences of lawlessness.
What is most important is that the report provided by Merrill should be accepted as a beginning, not something just to be tucked away for comparison 12 months from now.
It is important that the city and its residents use the report wisely.