Lehigh Valley

Committee grills Allentown police on center city, arena security plans

Public safety committee wants to know what plans are in place before hockey arena opens.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Allentown City Council member Jeanette Eichenwald declared she was disgusted.

She had called a meeting of her public safety committee at 5 p.m. Wednesday to find out how city police intend to ensure public safety in center city Allentown after the new arena opens.

Eichenwald was not happy that Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald did not attend her meeting and because police do not yet have any plans "set in stone."

The purpose of the meeting, as stated by Eichenwald at the outset, was to find out "what staffing arrangements are being developed to provide for public security for the anticipated events planned in the arena zone."

She also wanted to know the financial implications of implementing those security plans.

Her committee's questions were fielded by Capt. Glen Dorney, whom council member Daryl Hendricks later identified as an interim assistant police chief.

"As far as the arena plans go, we don't have anything set in stone due to the fact that we're still meeting with arena personnel," said Dorney. "In fact, we met yesterday.

"We're mapping some things out, but we don't have a definitive answer right now."

Council member Ray O'Connell, who also serves on the public safety committee, noted it's already May and the first event in the arena is the Sept. 12 Eagles concert.

"The hockey season will then be upon us," said Eichenwald.

"You said nothing is set in stone at this point," O'Connell told Dorney. "I would like for you and the chief to come back when it really is etched in stone and tell us how you are going to deploy your men for an event, whether be a concert or a hockey game."

Eichenwald, who repeatedly expressed her disappointment during the meeting, agreed that another meeting on the subject should be held in summer.

"I thought we were going to have answers tonight," she said. "We need to understand what the financial implications will be [and] what the security arrangements will be. It's incumbent upon the police department to provide the citizens with some response."

She said City Council has not had any opportunity to have a dialogue with the police chief since it approved his appointment in November.

"We really need to have a conversation with Chief Fitzgerald about this. I thought that was going to happen this evening. It's good for public relations and good government for City Council to be able to dialogue with the chief."

What is known

Overcoming public fear of inner-city crime, even if that fear is not based on facts, will be a key to the arena's success.

Dorney explained police will be meeting with arena personnel on a regular basis, to learn what concerts and other events they are having, along with estimated attendance and where people are parking.

"It's going to be fluid. The amount of people that show up and the type of venue will dictate how many people we're going to deploy.

"We're going to deploy our manpower based on that. We're very data driven now under Chief Fitzgerald."

Dorney said police officers working inside the new arena will be paid by the arena, but the city will bear the cost of police working outside the new building.

City resident Paulette Hunter, whom Eichenwald credited for initiating the meeting, indicated the arena should pay for police working both inside and outside the building.

Dorney said there will be a minimum police staffing level for any arena event but "what that is we don't know yet. But we're not going to allow the area around the arena and the entire downtown go neglected."

He stressed police won't only be protecting the arena block in the center of town, but also in neighborhoods surrounding it. He noted some people living nearby may walk to events in the arena, while others will park in neighborhoods around it.

"They're going to be safe and comfortable and see police visible as they walk to these events," he promised.

Dorney said police will be on patrol throughout the revitalized downtown, so people will feel secure enjoying its new restaurants and other amenities.

Eichenwald said thousands more people will be coming to downtown Allentown to work, dine out and participate in downtown life on a day-to-day basis – not only when arena events are scheduled.

Police force to increase

Dorney said police plan to have more officers on duty downtown. He said now four police cars cover center city, but that potentially could eventually increase to as many as nine or 10 cars working that area.

He said that will take more manpower, explaining the department wants to get up to a full complement of 216 officers. He said right now it has about 200.

"Our goal date is to get back up to full staff by the end of June," said Dorney, adding the process of hiring those police officers is underway.

At least some new hires will require training, which can take nearly a year until they can patrol the city on their own.

Dorney said police don't want to reassign officers now patrolling other parts of downtown to center city. He explained money not being spent on salaries for those 16 additional officers is being used to pay the overtime of current officers.

He said police already have increased downtown patrols and crime in some sections of center city has dropped 21 percent compared to this time last year.

Hendricks, a retired Allentown police captain who also serves on the public safety committee, said he hopes more police officers will patrol downtown on bicycles.

"They're extremely effective. They're quiet; almost a stealth patrol."

Police chase protocol

Eichenwald also wanted to know if any protocols have changed since the April 25 "police chase through the city," in which three police officers were injured.

She mentioned there was big discussion about changing police pursuit protocols after the 2009 death of Carmen Rodriguez of Allentown. Rodriguez was fatally injured in 2009 when a man driving a stolen SUV slammed into her car at Eighth and Walnut streets. Police had chased that stolen vehicle from Bethlehem to Allentown.

Dorney said police policies are reviewed every two years "and we constantly look at what we can change to do better based on de-briefings of incidents that occur."

He said police still are actively doing an internal investigation of the April 25 pursuit. He said that will be wrapped up in a week or two, because some officers involved are not yet back to work.

Dorney said one of the injured police officers, Scott Magill, has not yet returned to work "but he's got no permanent damage."

Magill is a bicycle officer who was struck by the suspect's vehicle during the chase.

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