New police presence making a difference in Morris Township

New police presence making a difference in Morris

September 28, 2013
Morris Township has joined with the Southwest Regional Police Department to provide part-time police service in the township. From left are township Supervisors Roger Creech and Bob Keller, Southwest Police Chief John Hartman and township Supervisor Glenn Adamson. - Bob Niedbala / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

NINEVEH – Traffic from the increase in natural gas drilling and mining in their community have pushed Morris Township residents to the limits.

Once a quiet, rural township, Morris has turned into somewhat of an industrial zone and township residents were apparently fed up with it.

About 35 residents attended a township supervisors’ meeting early this summer.

“They were at their wits end with the speeders and just the blatant disregard for the community itself,” Morris Township Supervisor Bob Keller said. Keller and fellow Supervisors Roger Creech and Glenn Adamson felt the same way.

“There had to be a solution to the problem of traffic and the trucks driving illegally on roads they shouldn’t be on and damage to the roads that are not bonded with no recourse to being fixed except with the municipality’s money,” Keller said.

Other problems not related to natural gas or coal also surfaced at that meeting, supervisors said, including the increase in illegal drug use and crime in general throughout the township.

Several years earlier, supervisors had discussed joining with other townships to form a police department. However, costs of buying a car, hiring officers, providing training and insurance made it prohibitive. “It’s just very expensive,” Creech said.

The township has relied on state police for protection and a trooper attended that early summer meeting to hear residents’ concerns. But state police simply don’t have the manpower to patrol the township as often as the residents wished, Keller said.

Finding a solution

Supervisors found a solution by entering into an agreement with Southwest Regional Police Department for part-time police service. Providing the service was made possible with money from the natural gas impact fees the township now receives.

Southwest serves 10 communities in Washington, Fayette and Greene counties. In Greene, its officers are employed in Gray, Perry and Wayne townships. The department has been working in Morris since late July and the supervisors believe they have made a difference.

A person driving through the township on Route 18, the main highway, is sure to pass many large trucks as the road winds its way among the wood-covered hills.

“The woods are deceitful,” Keller said. “Behind those woods lay industry.”

In the last few years, 138 Marcellus shale wells have been drilled in the township as well as numerous other conventional wells and coal-bed methane wells. Associated with the activity “is a high volume of traffic, a horrendous amount of large truck traffic,” Keller said.

And more traffic appears to be on the way. Consol Energy Inc.’s Bailey Mine is now building a new portal on Patterson Creek Road.

“They anticipate 1,200 to 1.500 vehicles will travel that road a day, with deliveries and employees going back and forth to work,” Creech said.

In addition to traffic troubles, the supervisors have noticed an increase in crime related to homes that had been bought by the coal company and left vacant. Almost as soon as they are empty, they are raided by thieves for wire and copper pipe, Creech said.

Drugs on the rise

Residents, too, have spoken to the supervisors about an increase in drug activities in parts of the community.

“I hear it all the time,” Keller said. “Apparently we have more of a drug problem than we were aware of.”

Crime has changed, Southwest Police Chief John Hartman said. “What you would commonly consider crime that would occur in an urban area is now everywhere. I guarantee drugs are in the township; drugs are everywhere,” he said.

Hartman said his department, which employees 20 full-and part-time certified police officers, has tackled many of the same problems in other communities.

“It wasn’t that Morris Township was presenting us with something we hadn’t addressed in the past,” he said.

Southwest met with the supervisors to discuss the community’s problems, Hartman said.

“Naturally, any crimes we run across, they want us to address, but they are the ones who tell us this is what we view as the primary concerns of the citizens here and we address those concerns,” he said.

Keller said the arrangement with Southwest has worked well and the township can add officers or increase patrols when it believes they are needed almost on a day’s notice.

“If the majority of activities are in the morning or at night we can communicate that to Chief Hartman and he’s able to fix the schedule to meet our needs,” Keller said.

Southwest also has the resources to do the job, Keller said. The department has a K-9 unit, a vice team and officers who are trained and certified to do truck inspections. The department also can enforce township ordinances such as those dealing with noise, dilapidated structures and junk vehicles.

A work in progress

Southwest’s service in the community has so far been a work in progress, Hartman said.

“For the most part, what our efforts have been up to this point are, No. 1, learn the area; No. 2, make points of contact in the community and No. 3, show an active presence,” he said.

Southwest attempts to assign the same group of officers to work in the township to allow them to become familiar with the community and its problems.

“These officers get to know the community and the community gets to know them,” Hartman said

Officers have learned from their talks with the supervisors and residents where they should keep a wary eye for drug activity. They also have been active enforcing traffic laws, stopping drivers for speeding, careless driving and operating unsafe equipment.

The department has not been heavy handed in citing drivers for traffic violations, issuing warnings to first time offenders. The supervisors “haven’t asked us to slam the public senseless over this; what they want is safety on the roadway,” Hartman said.

The department and its efforts have been well received. Keller said at least a dozen residents have told him that if any of the officers ever need a hand, a telephone or a little extra support, they can knock on their doors.

“I think the most amazing thing is how well these guys have meshed into the community,” Keller said. “They’ve really become part of the community in just a couple of months.”

The supervisors believe they have also seen some good results.

“Even the conventional vehicles, the speeder you use to see every day at 3:30 p.m. fly up the road, now goes slow enough he can waive as he goes by. It has been a noticeable difference,” Keller said.

The number of calls the supervisors receive regarding drug activity also seems to have diminished, he said.

Money makes it work

Supervisors said they had made it clear to residents that providing police services was possible because of the impact fee money and someday that might not be available and other sources of funds, including tax revenue, might have to be used to fill the gap.

When that was stated at a township meeting, the consensus of those in attendance was “100 percent, we need police protection,” Keller said. The supervisors believe it was good move to have Southwest in the community. “It’s something we couldn’t live without at this point,” Keller said.

At times Southwest officers are not on duty in the township, state police respond to police calls. Regardless of which department is on duty, residents who need police should still call 911.

Bob Niedbala worked as a general assignment reporter for the newspaper for 27 years in the Greene County bureau. He received a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Pittsburgh.

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