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Fayette a drug hub, rural crime panel says

| Friday, Sept. 14, 2007

A panel of state legislators met Thursday with police and public service providers in Fayette County to hear testimony on rural crime, especially drug-related violence.

Four members of the House Majority Policy Committee listened to 12 witnesses, most of whom blamed lax law enforcement funding.

The panel is touring the state, with a meeting scheduled Tuesday in Allentown.

"It is very important that we get this testimony on record so we can go back to Harrisburg and get the funding needed to fight crime in rural areas," said state Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-South Union.

District Attorney Nancy Vernon was first to testify yesterday and called Fayette a hub of drug activity between Pittsburgh and cities in Maryland, West Virginia and Ohio.

She said almost every crime in the county can be traced to drug use.

"When I took office in 1999 there were 1,600 criminal cases on the docket," Vernon said. "Now there are 2,600. The root of this increase in crime is in drug activity."

The drugs of choice in Fayette are cocaine and crack cocaine, Vernon said, followed by heroin and prescription narcotics such as Oxycontin, Vicodin and Percocet.

"Predominantly, our problem is with crack cocaine," she said.

Vernon said funding for the Fayette County Drug Task Force is negligible. The group of 35 officers is federally funded through the state Attorney General's office with a budget of $70,000 per year.

To subsidize their efforts, drug investigators collect forfeitures seized during raids.

"We cannot survive on our allotted budget," Vernon said, "and forfeitures are not a good source of income because we don't know how much we'll get from month to month."

Task force Detective Lt. Kyle Sneddon said the unit needs five full-time detectives to operate efficiently. Currently, the task force is comprised of volunteers from various police departments in the county.

The task force has tripled its number of arrests from 2006 to 2007. Networks of drug dealers account for much of the crime in Fayette, Sneddon said.

"These associations have brought the violence of big cities to rural America," he said. "Many of our residents, especially our older residents, are experiencing a lower quality of life than they deserve."

Vernon said the need to pool resources and consolidate police in Fayette to form a countywide force is overwhelming.

"What we need in Fayette County is more police, generally," Vernon said.

Uniontown police Chief Ron Kozak said regional policing is a necessity.

"I don't have enough officers to deter anything," he said. "I'm fighting a war on crime with no soldiers. The only way we are going to survive is to regionalize. That is the only way it is going to work."

State police Cpl. Greg Keefer told the legislators Fayette is the only place in Pennsylvania that troopers "dread" being assigned.

"If you can work here, you can work anywhere," Keefer said.

Keefer also called for more officers. The barracks in Uniontown is the busiest in the state, he said. The barracks is working with 80 troopers, shy of the full complement of 90.

The barracks was down to 68 before 12 troopers were recently hired. He called the crime statistics in Fayette "astronomical" compared to other areas of the state.

"If the complement was up, crime wouldn't go away, but we could do a better job," he said. "We could be proactive instead of reactive. Uniontown troopers don't have the time. They respond from call to call."

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