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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Easton police: New blood, direction

Rebirth: The force emerges from scandals younger, more determined.
Of The Morning Call by Michael Duck - September 21, 2008

Scandal after scandal has battered Easton's police department in the last decade, from police brutality lawsuits to internal fights and the accidental shooting death of an officer inside headquarters. Now, the department's reputation and future depends on a crew of officers in their 20s. More than a third of Easton's 56 police officers have three years of experience or less, and about half of the department has five years or less, Chief Larry Palmer said. Similar inexperience in Allentown's police force has drawn criticism from Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin, who has said the city's young investigations department is taking a longer time to solve crimes. In a July op-ed piece in The Morning Call, he warned of a ''disastrous loss of experience to the police force.'' But in Easton, officials and observers said the city's infusion of young officers has energized the police force while flushing out elements that were poisoning it. ''What I'm seeing is enthusiasm,'' said Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli. ''This department is definitely on the rebound.'' Skilled supervisors can use new recruits to help turn a department around, said Doug Ward, director of Johns Hopkins University's academic Division of Public Safety Leadership.

''If you have a history of corruption or a history of use-of-force problems -- if those are ingrained into the organizational culture -- one of the best ways to break those is to bring in new blood,'' Ward said. The Easton force's problems have made the department a magnet for lawsuits. The city and its insurance company paid out more than $5 million to settle police brutality lawsuits from 2001 to 2005. Palmer had been the chief from 1997 to 2003, when those incidents happened. Nearly a year ago, two former officers brought sex and race discrimination cases against Easton in federal court -- the city won the race case and agreed to settle the sex discrimination suit last month for $90,000. And earlier this month, another former officer alleged that Easton police used excessive force when arresting him for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. The city is still in talks to settle a $20 million wrongful death suit brought by the widow of officer Jesse Sollman, who was accidentally shot and killed by officer Matthew Renninger in March 2005. Renninger is also suing the city, over his retirement benefits. Amidst the fallout from the shooting, an unidentified Easton officer posted a ''rat list'' of fellow officers in police headquarters in September 2005. Though leaders of the police union dismissed it as locker-room humor, city officials described it as intimidation. ''I call it 'The Dark Ages,''' said Palmer, who was reappointed as chief in 2006. ''You really don't look forward to coming to work'' under those circumstances.

Part of the force's problem was a cadre of veteran officers who protected each other while resisting changes, said Easton resident and activist Dennis Lieb, who had been involved in the Weed and Seed program. ''The sooner they all leave, the better the city will be,'' said Lieb, a frequent critic of city officials. Though Lieb still doesn't count on police to solve the city's crime problems, ''I do feel that the newer cops are better than the ones we had before.'' he said. ''They're more courteous, they seemingly are more interested in the problems I have.'' The four officers who joined the force this year include the department's only current female officer, 25-year-old Jada Roderick, and its only current Hispanic officer, 39-year-old Diego Santiago. The new recruits speak glowingly of their superiors, and though they've only read about the department's problems, they understand they must be part of the solution. ''The department is definitely going for the better,'' said 23-year-old officer Ryan Boorstein. The new officers' energy is also rubbing off on the veterans, said Capt. Michael Vangelo. Unlike in past years, two thirds of the department has used just one or no sick days this year, he said. Morganelli has praised the department's young investigators for turning up new leads in old cases.

''We're training our police officers better than ever now,'' Morganelli said, compared to the training veteran officers received 20 or 30 years ago. ''That makes up for some of the lack of experience.'' Two years after the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association labeled the force an ''agency in crisis,'' the group in 2007 awarded Easton police accreditation. Some Easton veterans began leaving because of early retirement offers in 2005, Palmer said. But unlike Allentown, where a generous retirement plan has prompted 78 officers to leave since 2005, Easton's relatively small department has been building up its numbers slowly. That's allowed officials to be selective in picking new recruits, Palmer said. Still, bad judgment is a risk. Earlier this year, rookie Easton officer John Alestas, 23, slammed his personal car into a convenience store after a night of drinking with fellow off-duty officers. He was fined for speeding and careless driving and later quit. Even when rookie officers are on the job, ''They make more mistakes when they're young, so you need better supervision,'' Ward said, referring especially to their first car chases and major investigations. ''Obviously, it's a balance,'' he added. But ''if you want to change your organizationÂ…you want to bring new people in and keep them wanting to save the world for as long as possible.''

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