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Uniontown struggles to protect citizenry

| Monday, Aug. 23, 2004

Police Chief Kyle Sneddon knows about the prostitutes sashaying up and down North Gallatin Avenue.

He knows about the kids that hang out on Pershing Court, causing the racket that keeps the rest of the neighborhood awake. He knows about the drug dealers there, too.

But sometimes he can't do anything about any of it.

The ranks of the Uniontown Police Department have dwindled to the lowest number ever, and the chief said his department's presence has changed over the years.

Fewer officers work each shift. Service calls that used to be answered in five minutes sometimes take half an hour or more. Paperwork takes longer to prepare. Arrests don't happen as quickly.

And patrols through the city's problem areas are carried out less frequently.

"It's hard for us, it's almost impossible for us, to do proactive policing," Sneddon said. "It's almost all reactive."

Including the chief, 15 officers work in the Uniontown Police Department. One more position is waiting to be filled.

That's little more than half the size of the 28-officer force Uniontown had when Sneddon started as a patrol officer in 1983.

Back then, if fewer than five officers were working a shift, others were called in, he said. But the money to continue staffing at that level is gone.

"If the city did that today, they'd have to shut down the rest of the city," the chief said.

Now, three-officer shifts are common. And the cops, individually, are loaded with work.

Officers in the mid-'80s handled about 300 or 400 service calls each year, everything from car accidents to felony crimes in progress.

Sneddon said that number has more than doubled. Now each officer is answering between 800 and 1,000 calls, prioritizing them as they come in.

"We want to provide the highest level of service, but we can only provide the highest level of service within our means," he said.

Uniontown, the Fayette County seat, has more than 12,000 residents. Mayor James Sileo said he remembers when that number was twice as high.

As the population shrank, so did the city's tax base. Uniontown had to get by with less.

At one point in the late 1980s, Sneddon recalled, several officers were laid off. Over time, he added, others retired and their positions never were filled.

"It's economics, and it's not just in Uniontown," Sneddon said. "This is happening across the country."

The nearby mid-Mon Valley region provides several examples. Last year, the communities of North Charleroi and Belle Vernon were forced to furlough entire departments when their budgets became tight.

Although Uniontown's department is in no danger of being eliminated, Sileo said maintaining it is costly.

Roughly $900,000 of the city's $6.17 million general fund goes to the police, he said. The biweekly payroll for all city employees, he added, comes to about $90,000.

Sileo said it's a shame that Uniontown can't afford to employ more officers.

"Yes, we always need policemen. You never have enough policemen," he said. "I could put four more officers on, and it wouldn't be enough."

Sneddon said he'd like eight more.

He envisions foot patrols, a school-based officer and a team of detectives. Uniontown had only one, until Detective Phil Jones left.

Sneddon said he wants to bring back the physical presence that once was working to prevent crime, not just to chase it.

With the help of graduate student Danielle Ottoviani, 28, the police know now, more clearly than ever, the neighborhoods that need their help.

As part of her studies at California University of Pennsylvania, Ottoviani, a Uniontown native, created computerized maps detailing where and when criminal offenses were occurring in the city.

She worked on the project for four semesters, collecting police reports weekly and plugging them into a data bank. She received her master's degree in geography and regional planning in May.

Several months into her work, Ottoviani started noticing trends. People at certain taverns tend to get violent. Most crimes appear to happen on Sundays and Mondays. And a small street called Shady Lane is home to a large number of criminal incidents.

"It was always the same addresses, the same street," she said.

Lawrence Moses, a professor in Ottoviani's department, said the school performs this sort of research as a service to the community.

Although the more seasoned officers already knew about the bad areas of town, Moses said Ottoviani's work added an important visual element.

"They're putting their histories together," he said. "And it's giving them a different look."

Sneddon said the study supports his argument for keeping a more visible police presence in the street.

"We know where the hot spots are," he said.

A federal grant may be able to help. Sileo said the city is seeking $150,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice, money that would allow the city to hire three additional officers.

The city will be filling the vacancy created by Jones' departure, as well.

And the mayor is holding out hope that the recently renovated downtown will provide some financial relief.

Multimillionaire businessman and Fayette County Commissioner Joe Hardy has poured millions of dollars into a revitalization project known as the George C. Marshall Plan II. Organizers are in the second phase: filling the new storefronts with businesses.

"Uniontown's coming back," Sileo said. "The city's coming back. That will definitely increase the tax base."

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