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Alle-Kiski Valley economic development group honored for police training

| Saturday, April 19, 2014, 1:46 a.m.

An economic development organization comprised of Westmoreland County municipal leaders has accepted a governor's award for its contribution to local governance.

The Westmoreland Economic Development Initiative for Growth (WEDIG) was one of eight recipients to be honored in Harrisburg on Tuesday with the 2014 Governor's Award for Local Government Excellence.

The state Department of Community and Economic Development chose to recognize WEDIG for its implementation of a law enforcement training program from the international Crisis Intervention Team (CIT). The program trains police officers to better handle situations involving mental health issues and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

WEDIG President Greg Primm — the Allegheny Township manager who helped found the organization in 2009 to bolster Alle-Kiski Valley development — said WEDIG began participating in the program last year.

He said the idea arose as situations involving people with mental health issues grew more prevalent in the area.

“Unfortunately, since the police aren't specifically trained to identify these people, a lot of them end up in jail,” Primm said. “In many cases, that's the last place they should be, and they're there at the taxpayers' expense.

“This program helps law enforcement diffuse potentially dangerous situations and ensures that people with mental challenges have access to the services they need.”

WEDIG started the regional Crisis Intervention Team program last year in cooperation with Westmoreland County 911, Mental Health America and the Butler County Sheriff's Office.

The startup was made possible by a $25,000 grant it received from Staunton Farm Foundation, which was established in 1937 to benefit people with mental illness.

Program classes feature trained mental health professionals, outside law enforcement agencies, district attorneys, magistrates and other professionals to train officers to handle those with mental challenges.

In January, WEDIG graduated its first class, which brought 16 officers from departments across Allegheny, Armstrong, Butler and Westmoreland counties to the former Citizens General Hospital in New Kensington.

The organization, through the grant money and donations, reimburses each department $500 to cover the cost of the officer's replacement during the 40-hour course.

Lee Schumaker, Allegheny Township director of public safety and certified Crisis Intervention Team trainer, said officers who have participated in the program have used the skills taught by the program on their first day back from the training sessions.

As a part-time police officer in Leechburg, Schumaker has approached certain volatile situations differently since receiving his training.

“It's all about de-escalating situations,” he said. “It's the goal of every police officer to make it home that night. This program is about making sure it doesn't get to that point. It's worth its weight in gold.”

WEDIG will hold another training course from May 12 to 16 in Butler County that will be funded entirely by a $54,000 grant it received this month from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

According to Kathy Starr, Allegheny Township supervisors chairwoman and co-chair for WEDIG's education committee, the organization plans to establish courses in all four counties that envelop the Alle-Kiski Valley, plus Indiana County.

Starr said it is gratifying for WEDIG to be honored by the governor's office, since the organization embodies the spirit of regional collaboration that Gov. Tom Corbett has been preaching to local governments.

“WEDIG started out as a way of sharing resources and infrastructure between Allegheny Township, Arnold, New Kensington, Upper Burrell and Lower Burrell and has grown from there,” she said. “On a larger scale, grant programs are looking for entities that facilitate regional cooperation.

“That's exactly what we're doing, and it allows us to bring revenue into the Alle-Kiski Valley as a whole. I think that's part of the reason we're being recognized, as well.”

Officials from the Department of Community and Economic Development could not be reached.

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or bashe@tribweb.com.

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