Eyes and Ears

JOHNSTOWN -Two groups of residents on the city’s west and north sides say illegal drugs and related criminal activity have no place in their neighborhoods, and they’re willing to act as extra eyes and ears for city police.

The two neighborhood watch groups have been meeting this year – usually 12 to 15 people at a time – sharing their thoughts and working closely with authorities to report suspected criminal activities.

“I’m tired of the drug action going on right across from my apartment,” said Gilbert Street resident Penny Sorell, speaking at a neighborhood watch meeting last week at the Hometown Market.

Richard Warner of South Melcher Street added, “I’m here because of the drug activity in the area.”

Market co-owners Suzy and Mike Mathews started the neighborhood watch group, which meets periodically at the 9 S. Melcher St. store. Residents of that west side area of the city had attended three meetings as of Wednesday’s session – about a dozen people at a time coming in to share stories about what they see on their streets.

The other neighborhood watch group for north-end residents has been meeting this year at the J.B. Waterway Bar & Grill, 102 1/2 Water St. That group – organized by Patricia Isabella – will meet again at 6:30 p.m. today.

Isabella, who says she has had items stolen recently from her 20 Water St. property, including copper, said her group has met a few times since January, but bad weather hampered attendance.

She said city police officers and firefighters have come to speak to her group. She is especially concerned because the north side is heavily populated with older residents.

“We are trying to promote better things in that area,” Isabella said.

City police Chief Mark Gifford said watch groups in Johnstown are generally “informal” if they don’t meet regularly. He said that “unofficially,” if residents witness criminal activity, they should report it to police anyway. He said neighborhood watch activities should involve common sense.

“In this [South Melcher Street] neighborhood, most definitely the crime is associated with drugs,” said Suzy Mathews.

She said she and her husband have provided the Hometown Market as a site for people to at least “vent” about the criminal activity, as they see it. Some people, she said, simply don’t want to get involved.

“People are getting very frustrated and calling us and saying this is what’s happening and nothing [as far as arrests] is happening,” Mrs. Mathews said.

Gifford sent Patrolman Mike Millias, the city’s crime-prevention officer, to speak with residents at the Hometown Market watch group’s meeting Wednesday. The meeting was less of a formal meeting and more of an extended conversation involving residents telling the officer about various criminal activity they believe they’ve observed, ranging from drug sales to car break-ins to public urination in people’s backyards.

Mike Mathews said he was glad for the police presence and encouraged by his watch group’s participation. Those who attended sat at a small table and also stood as customers came in and out of the store.

Mathews said police Lt. Dave Gilbo said he was OK with the watch groups if members want to walk in their neighborhoods as patrols and observe activities. He said his group may start doing that.

Millias said the concern is always people getting “hurt like in Florida.” He was referring to the Feb. 26, 2012, incident in Sanford, Fla., in which neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman shot to death 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Millias told the watch group that just because they report something, the police can’t immediately arrest someone. He said the department may have to introduce a confidential informant into the situation, investigate, and formally record the sale of drugs so the arrest stands up in court.

“The problem is you have to have probable cause,” he said. “You need to have something.”

Mike Mathews said people ask him why police can’t simply enter the residence of a suspected drug dealer – like on the TV show “Cops” – if all indications are drug activity is taking place.

“‘Cops’ is a TV show, first and foremost,” Millias responded.

Millias said he was “excited” when he was given the chance to use some his crime-prevention skills while community policing with the watch group.

One participant during the meeting told the officer about what he sees as a traffic problem in his neighborhood: no one completely stopping at a four-way stop.

“Basically, we got a good neighborhood,” said attendee Dave Warner.

But he noted that although his kids are grown up, he doesn’t think small children should be part of neighborhoods tainted by drugs.

“I don’t feel they should be subjected to this,” Warner said.

He discussed the ransacking of vehicles and the stealing of money from cars that he sees going on in Johnstown

“You’ve got to call us,” urged Officer Millias. “A lot of people don’t lock their cars.”

Millias, who used to live on South Melcher Street, said there used to be certain “pockets of bad streets” in the city where crime was easily identified. Now, he said, it is “dispersed” all over.

The officer said part of the drug problem can be traced to criminals coming to this area from bigger population centers such as New York City.

Mike Mathews said he noticed several cars one time on one street that seemed out of place and he told a city officer, who looked up the plates. He said they came came back from places like Schenectady and Niskayuna.

“What are they doing here?” Mathews asked.

Millias said that many times, the officers don’t have time to investigate what cars are parked in what neighborhoods. He said if they are parked illegally, the officer issues a ticket and moves on to his next duties. But he noted drug transactions are “like a schedule” sometimes.

One woman brought up the fact there is a registered sex offender on her block.

Millias often reminded those in attendance that people have certain rights. For example, he said a city resident can have a “party house” in the neighborhood – a “dump” that barely passes code. But even though this is “annoying,” there’s nothing the police can do if no laws have been broken, he said.

He said some residences play music loud, but when the officers arrive, it’s turned down, so no ticket can be issued.

Mathews also talked about the topic of no supervision for little children wandering around downtown.

“That falls back on the parents,” the officer responded.

Michael Anich covers Johnstown and Fulton County news. He can be reached at manich@leaderherald.com.