Some local representatives of the criminal justice system agree that Bedford County is a safe place to live, but addiction, mental health struggles and a lack of resources are issues that need addressed to ensure that safety can be maintained in the future.
The Uniform Crime Reporting program offers a general overview of crime statistics for law enforcement entities, from borough to state police. Incident numbers are recorded for a variety of offenses, including murder, rape, assaults, thefts, arson, and human trafficking.
While this provides a vague overview of what keeps the sirens blaring and police employed, the numbers, themselves, only paint a superficial image of issues affecting local communities. The impact of issues such as narcotics, mental health, and poverty, are reflected, but not defined by, the numbers.
Narcotics and Mental Health
Representatives from the Everett and Bedford Borough Police Departments, Pennsylvania State Police, and the Bedford County District Attorney and Public Defender, said drugs — and alcohol — are likely contributors to many the crimes that do not have a listed drug component. While no one can truly be sure of the motivational factors behind most crimes, those asked said they believe at least half of all incidents law enforcement responds to are motivated by drug and alcohol abuse.
“You can absolutely assume drugs are a big factor of a fair amount of crimes that happen in the area,” state police Public Relations Officer Christopher Fox said.
Public Defender Karen Hendershot said she believes drug and alcohol addiction underly the majority of crimes in the area.
“For instance, we have an increase of theft cases. That’s based on fueling an addiction. And I’m seeing people stuck in this web of addiction and therefore in a constant cycle of the judicial system,” Hendershot said.
Thad Yothers of the Everett police Department said marijuana is the most common drug he sees, although the medical marijuana program legitimizes the use — as long as users follow rules. He also noted he has seen a definitive increase in fentanyl use.
Fox said he has also seen changes in the drug landscape.
“Cocaine is still out there, but one of the less common drugs that are seized on traffic stops.” Fox noted.
The medical marijuana programs has not significantly impacted law enforcement in the area, according to the representatives. District Attorney Lesley Childers-Potts said she has heard people say that the medical grade product is more expensive, prompting people to continue to self-medicate with street drugs, including pot and pain killers.
Mental health issues often go hand-in-hand with those struggling with addiction.
“I think the COVID crisis showed us we’re lacking in mental health services nationwide,” Hendershot said.
Poverty exacerbates the issues, Yothers said. While prices are skyrocketing across the country, “everybody’s pay isn’t raising. We’re all struggling and as you struggle and times are getting hard, people take different actions,” he said, noting that he has seen people becoming increasingly desperate and defeated by the current economic climate.
Bedford County is uniquely situated along many major traffic arteries, including Route 30, I-99, I-70, and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Fox, who said the Everett State Police barracks is one of four across the state that patrol the turnpike, noted, “Anywhere where there is more traffic or more people flowing through a certain area, there’s a higher likelihood of potential crimes.”
Bedford Police Chief Craig Bowman said he has seen an increase over the years of the number of people moving through the area on foot or on bicycle, including those who are experiencing homelessness or drug addiction.
“We have major corridors through our county and it’s amazing what comes through our county that we’re actually unaware of because of that,” Yothers said. “As a firefighter I can see some of that but as a regular civilian, you don’t know what you’re passing” on the road, he added.
Hendershot said she has heard that the drugs coming into Bedford County can be traced back to cartels more frequently than before, which she described as “more addictive and terrifying,” but noted that is a national problem.
Some said a lack of mental health and drug rehabilitation services in the area makes it difficult to stop the cycle of crime.
“There is a lack of resources for people with mental health issues, especially for those who don’t have the disposable income to just pay and go somewhere,” Childers-Potts said.
There is only one state-subsidized hospital that provides inpatient treatment, located in Torrence, Westmoreland County, which contributes to the difficulty some find in procuring inpatient treatment. It’s easier to gain admittance with a dual diagnosis of drug addiction and mental illness, then simply for mental health issues, she added.
Hendershot said she appreciates the options provided by the local Development and Behavioral Health Services office, but said the problem is simply too large to be tackled by one provider.
“I am in no way suggesting they’re not doing a wonderful job, I’m saying they need more resources,” Hendershot said, noting that her clients are at times put on waiting lists for treatment.
Bowman said the lack of resources can take officers off the streets to try to find help for individuals.
“A good example — if we discover an individual that’s homeless during the winter months, there’s no resource for us to be able to take those people to a shelter,” he said.
He recounted an incident with a homeless veteran, in which it took more than six hours to find a place for him, and then required a trip to Altoona.
When it comes to ways to proactively try to prevent crime, suggested solutions rely on both proactive and reactive measures.
“I believe in high police presence and being proactive,” Bowman said.
Fox pointed to prosecution as a deterrent.
“I don’t have any easy answers how we reduce, especially the violent crime we’re seeing, but I believe that we need to be clambering for more resources and interventions,” Hendershot said. Without more resources or interventions, “our citizenry gets locked in this terrible cycle.”
The breakdown of the traditional family unit, often as a result of addicted parents, can leave children at risk, Hendershot said.
“I’m even seeing more juvenile cases that are drug cases,” Hendershot said.
Childers-Potts praised the Bedford County Correctional Facility and its efforts at providing help to inmates.
“We have several people at the jail who are taking rehabilitation for drugs and alcohol very seriously,” she said.
Overall, Childers-Potts said, Bedford’s reputation as a safe place may be why the crime statistics can sometimes seem so negative.
“Because we are so used to Bedford County being a safe place, when things happen in our county that seem counter to that, that’s not something we’re used to,” she said. “I think around here we take things a little more seriously — things that, in larger counties people might be sentenced to probation for, they might be sentenced to jail time here.”
Yothers advocated for a community center or programming that can provide safe space and positive influences for at risk children.
“We need something here in our area like a YMCA or a community building for these people to go to, and kids that are from a split family, a Big Brothers, Big Sisters program. We don’t have those in this county,” he suggested.
Calls to the Saxton Borough Police Department were not returned.