By David Assad
Contributing Writer 

Police, judges address Knoxville public safety


Every public official who was invited to the 30th Ward Knoxville Block Watch meeting Dec. 12, at the St. Sava Church Hall on Knox Avenue, showed up, except for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

All other officials did accept the invitation extended to them by the block watch.

Those who stopped by to say hello to the residents included State Rep. Harry Readshaw, local district judges Richard King and Gene Riccardi, Councilman Jeff Koch, as well as a representative from Zone 3 police station.

The Zone 3 policeman, Officer Troy Signorella, talked to the Knoxville residents about topics ranging from drug-dealing to graffiti.

Officer Signorella said the drug-problem is not just bad in Knoxville, but “all over the country.”

“Get used to it,” he said. “It's only getting worse. My only answer is to hire more police.”

The city police department is attempting to reach the 900-officer limit allowed under State Act 47 which serves as a strict guideline for the city's annual operating budget. Before massive layoffs in all departments hit the city more than three years ago, the police staff had as many as 1,170 officers.

Some residents at the meeting took exception to the officer's attitude of acceptance toward the drug problem, but Mr. Signorella noted that he does not accept the problem. He said he relishes the challenge of tackling it every day when he goes to work.

“It's my meat and potatoes,” he said, noting drugs are the root cause for other illegal activities such as burglary, prostitution, robberies and assaults.

“I dedicate my whole eight-hour shift to combating the drug problem,” said Mr. Signorella, who enjoys working in the south neighborhoods of the city, particularly the hilltop area.

“I know the area from working here for a long time,” he said. “I've seen a lot of the people [who practice criminal activity] grow up. I know them all [from the drug-dealers to the prostitutes].”

One woman in the audience complained about the proliferation of graffiti in recent years, which has become a major problem in the back alleys of every street in the neighborhood. She believes this type of vandalism, even done to properties owned by the people living there and not just rentals, helps attract the criminal element.

Several of the residents complained to the officer that when they call police to file a report, they often get a “don't care” response from someone who just wants to pass the buck.

Officer Signorella said that “lazy” attitude is not acceptable. He told the residents if they are being brushed off by anyone not willing to take a report from them, they should insist on getting the policemen's name and badge number.

“Don't let them fluff you off,” he said. “It's their job [to serve the public]. Call the commander [to complain about the officer] if you have to.”

Block Watch President Lucy Frankwitt said that her organization does not seem to have direct communication with Zone 3 like it had before the massive police layoffs several years ago.

“We no longer have that communication with the police,” Mrs. Frankwitt said.

Officer Signorella noted that recently-appointed Chief Nate Harper is very good and very professional and is attempting to get back to a more grass-roots approach in working with community leaders.

Chief Harper is trying to get more of a police presence out on the street the way it used to be, according to the officer.

“The chief and [other administrators] are really good guys who are going to turn this thing around,” Mr. Signorella said. “Just give it time.”

The officer said efforts are being stepped up by the city to remove graffiti and prosecute those responsible. There is now a Graffiti Task Force for catching and prosecuting the perpetrators and a Graffiti Buster program for cleaning up the mess these careless people create.

District Judge King said the Allegheny County District Attorney's office is beginning to take the graffiti problem more seriously. He said many of the more elaborate “tags” are done by young adults who in turn are teaching juveniles how to do this unsavory practice.

He said there is a man from Erie being prosecuted through the DA's office who is also being charged with corrupting the morals of two minors who served as his accomplices.

In many cases, those being caught for graffiti are being penalized with more than just a minor summary offense. This usually consists of a fine and restitution. Instead, more serious criminal charges are being sought, according to Mr. King. In some cases, it could result in jail time for the graffiti punks.

Judge King said he can not go into detail about this yet, but “I think you will see a lot [of positive things] happening [to combat graffiti] in the next couple months.”

He noted that even the county Port Authority Transit is doing a lot to combat this problem since the bus-way lines to the south and east suburbs are constantly being tagged by vandals.

“It's costing PAT a lot of money to fight this problem,” Mr. King said.

Mr. Ricciardi, who left city council last year, also addressed the group briefly. He said everyone needs to remain positive about the good things about the city neighborhoods. He said he believes Mayor Ravenstahl wants to make the neighborhoods stronger and appears to be taking a special interest in revitalizing them.

However, he said he hopes the new mayoral administration supports two pieces of legislation that he helped pass in recent years while he still served on council.

One of them concerns the curfew for juveniles, an ordinance that is no longer enforced. The other concerns the landlord responsibility act, which he said is also being ignored. He said he hopes both laws will be taken more seriously by the Ravenstahl administration in the future.

“Everybody should be held accountable [in city government],” Mr. Ricciardi said. “Ask questions [of public officials]. It keeps us on our toes.”


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