HAZLETON — Attorney General Kathleen Kane and city Police Chief Frank DeAndrea pointed to the successes of Kane’s Mobile Street Crime Unit on Wednesday and asked residents of Hazleton and across the commonwealth to help the success continue.
At the urging of state Sen. John Yudichak to address violent drug-related crime plaguing Northeastern Pennsylvania, Kane organized the Region X Intensive Mobile Proactive Anti-Crime Team — IMPACT — task force and deployed it to Hazleton in September to dismantle gang-run drug trafficking networks.
The approximately 20-member team, composed of federal, state, county and municipal law enforcement officers, racked up more than 120 arrests and seized about 35,000 packets of heroin, quantities of crack cocaine, numerous vehicles, handguns, rifles, an assault weapon and thousands of dollars in cash, with many of the items on display at a press conference at City Hall on Wednesday.
Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township, noted that a 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Justice detailed the foothold that drug-trafficking organizations had established in the Hazleton area and that branched off throughout Luzerne and surrounding counties.
Violent crime spiked 30 percent in Luzerne County in 2012, he said, and the county saw 20 homicides in 2013 — 13 of them in Wilkes-Barre, making it the deadliest year in the history of the city. He pointed to “criminal gangs and sophisticated drug trafficking organizations fueled by international drug cartels” driving the drug trade to local neighborhoods.
Yudichak said he and U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, founded Operation GangUp a few years ago to try to combat the problem and, working with other professionals, came up with the idea for a mobile street crime unit, which local police chiefs supported. Yudichak presented the idea to Kane during a conversation at her kitchen table, “and she ran with it,” he said.
“People feel like they’ve been forgotten, people feel like it’s only the big cities that deserve protection. I don’t feel that way,” Kane said at the news conference.
The General Assembly, with a bipartisan coalition of supporters, secured $2.5 million to make it happen.
“This Mobile Street Crime Unit is about street fighting. I’m a street fighter, I’m from West Side (of Scranton),” Kane said.
And Kane said the unit has been effective. In just a three-day sweep that ended Tuesday, Operation Rising Star made more than 30 arrests, agents recovered more than 9,000 packets of heroin with a street value of nearly $100,000, seized $30,000 worth of cocaine and crack and $5,500 in cash.
“From the street, the heroin dealers and users have told us that there is a decrease in supply and there is a decrease in the purity. That means that it’s drying up. And what that means to all of you is that we have done our job and we will continue to do our job,” Kane said.
Kane said a member of her team was told that Hazleton seems “more peaceful, it seems safer. They’ve noticed a surge in police presence and they feel our presence.”
And while the IMPACT task force will move on to another community, Kane pledged not to abandon the Hazleton area, adding that her agents will still be available to assist local police when needed.
Kane acknowledged the cooperation of West Hazleton, Sugarloaf and Butler Township police chiefs and officers who worked on the task force with Hazleton officers and agents with her office, the Federal Bureau of Investigations and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, the Pennsylvania National Guard, who provided analysts to work with the intelligence collected by field agents, and the office of Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis.
She said team members identified 64 different heroin stamps in the Hazleton area, representing 64 different operations, and created a statewide database to track them. The unit also identified a gang population in Hazleton, including the Bloods, Trinitarios, Folk Nation, Latin Kings, F.A.M.E. and Dominicans Don’t Play (DDP).
“Gang recruitment here we have seen targeting children as young as 9 years old. We have also encountered a number of juveniles. And rather than set them on a course of gang initiation, we made sure we pulled them out of gang initiation. So not only have we seen people we’ve arrested, but we also encountered people we believe we saved from a lifetime of crimes,” she said.
Kane said working with DeAndrea was “a godsend,” calling him “a true credit to the men and women of the police department, to Pennsylvania.
DeAndrea compared the arrival of the street crimes unit to the Battle of Iwo Jima and Kane to Maj. Gen. Harry Schmidt — “a great leader ahead of their time, recognizing that the current way of fighting is not working, developing a new concept in the face of much resistance and emerged as one of the United States’ top commanders.”
DeAndrea said Hazleton was losing the war on crime until Kane sent the IMPACT task force. “I call this operation ‘Rising Star’ because we now have a light to follow,” he said.
DeAndrea and Kane urged area attendees at a Hazleton Crime Watch meeting later in the day to “pay it forward” by asking elected officials to keep funding the Mobile Street Crime Unit and to ask their family and friends throughout the commonwealth to do the same. Kane requested an additional $12 million for her budget, but Gov. Tom Corbett flat-lined her office’s budget in his 2014-15 budget proposal.
“We need to get funding in place for the next year. And I need you as constituents to call those in power and say, ‘This was a success, this is how we feel about the unit, we need to fund it going forward,’ so that the next community can be sitting here like you are six months from now and say, ‘OK, we have hope that things are going to get better,’” Kane said.