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Unique situations call for unique solutions

| Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, 12:02 a.m.

Like the confluence of the three rivers in Pittsburgh, three counties come together here: Washington, Westmoreland and Fayette.

A small part of Allegheny County could be included because Elizabeth Borough, Elizabeth Township and Forward Township figure in the 40 municipalities that comprise the Mid-Mon Valley as we know it.

But for discussion purposes and to better understand an already perplexing situation, today's column focuses on the 37 municipalities in the three counties where most of us live.

Therein resides the biggest challenge for law officers charged with pursuing local drug activity and crimes related to it.

That is, the Mid-Mon Valley isn't one place, it's 37 places.

The Mid-Mon Valley isn't one county, it's split among three counties.

Moreover, a river divides us.

The geographic disconnects contribute to why it's difficult to control the drug problem and why so many dealers and substance abusers get away with it, threatening the safety, security and future of a once-comfortable community.

For example, 9-1-1 calls go to different 9-1-1 centers depending, of course, in which county you live.

Valley police not only don't always receive and share information, they can't all communicate on common radio frequencies.

To borrow an idiom, the left hand doesn't always know what the right hand is doing, through no fault of the police but as a consequence of how communications systems have been set up with little regard to special circumstances that the Valley presents.

It's typical of obstacles that not only thwart more effective police work but can put officers in harm's way.

Washington, Westmoreland and Fayette counties have their own courts, district attorneys, sheriffs and district magistrates.

They operate their own drug task forces. They run separate investigations. They maintain separate records. The fringes of the three counties don't get as much attention as the middle.

On top of this, the Mid-Mon Valley has 15 different police departments, several very small. Five of those departments cover neighboring communities through contractual agreements. Eight have no police departments at all, relying on state police, when and if they're available.

Trying to coordinate with neighboring Allegheny County on occasion adds an entirely complex, new level of challenges in the fight against illegal drugs and drug-related crime.

As far as state police, while Washington-based Troop B covers the Valley out of its Rostraver and Uniontown substations, personnel are limited and spread thin.

Their far-ranging duties include patrolling highways such as I-70 and Route 51, investigating accidents and major cases, inspecting trucks and school buses and enforcing various state laws.

Meanwhile, the Valley sits in the middle of well-known, virtual “bookends” of busy drug activity: Uniontown to the south. McKeesport, Duquesne and Clairton to the north.

Despite facing seemingly long odds of success, police and other law officers do an impressive job of solving so many cases and making so many arrests.

“Dealing with three different counties creates hurdles we have to overcome,” Carroll Township Police Chief Paul Brand confirmed. “We have to be diligent. We've learned how to cooperate but it isn't easy.”

Such a unique situation calls for unique solutions.

In September 2011, a consultant working for the Governor's Center for Local Staff Services recommended that the Mid-Mon Valley establish several regional police forces and, eventually, one “super” police force extending into all three counties.

Like so many other good ideas around here, the proposal has gone nowhere.

Therefore, somewhat by default, the organization probably best positioned to achieve meaningful results fighting drug activity is one formed in the early 1970s, the Mon Valley Police Chiefs Association.

Members gather for lunch every two months at a Monongahela restaurant. Representatives of the local FBI office, state police and Washington County DA's office usually show up, but most police chiefs and top law enforcement officials from other Valley and county jurisdictions no longer do.

While the number of participants has fallen off over time, the Police Chiefs Association nonetheless provides a forum for as least some of them to “talk shop.”

“We need to reach out again, to rejuvenate our organization,” Brand conceded. “It's helpful to meet in person, not over the phone or electronically. It provides an opportunity to discuss better ways of communicating and sharing information…to network.”

Working together, who better to identify means by which Valley communities can improve public safety? Who better to control drugs and drug-related crimes that impact all of us?

“We make information-sharing a priority, especially when it comes to the drug trade,” so there's important reason for everyone to attend and to meet more than every two months.

Brand, secretary of the organization, believes police chiefs never lost interest but were drawn away by the press of too many demands on their time and resources.

Carroll Township recognizes the value of the bi-monthly meetings and enables Brand to attend “on the clock” as part of his duties. Every city, borough and township with a police department should do the same.

“Part of our meetings involves vetting everyone about issues affecting their department and what we need to do, especially with drugs as our priority,” Brand said. “It makes a difference.”

I'm sure.

The next meeting of the Mon Valley Police Chiefs Association will be held March 19.

The Valley Independent will be there.

Let's hope a couple of dozen chiefs, DA reps and other top law enforcement people will be there, too.

Joe Grata is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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