NEW CASTLE — New Castle Police Chief Bobby Salem held his breath Tuesday as midnight approached.
When the clock rang in 2014, he heaved a sigh of relief.
Now he could say that for the first time in nearly two decades, a year had come and gone without one person taking the life of another within the city’s borders.
Salem likes to think that stepped-up patrols and protocols he instituted last year to curb violence and attack the city’s drug problem have shown positive results.
“I think we’re heading in the right direction,” he said, “but we still have a long way to go.”
In police records dating back to 1997, he found that since then, there was no other year without a homicide in the city, and the average number in the past 10 years ranged between four and six.
Violent crime overall is down in the city, Salem pointed out.
The number of shootings without a death dropped from 23 incidents in 2012 to nine in 2013.
The number of armed robberies dropped from 35 to 21, he said, while the number of stabbings or assaults with a knife held steady with 16 in 2012 and 16 last year.
Salem attributes the drop in most categories to more aggressive patrols and concentration on trouble areas of the city.
“We’ve been saturating high crime areas with a lot of marked unit patrols and undercover operations,” he said. “That’s been our strategy and it’s been effective.”
He cited Crestview Gardens, Halco Drive and Bell Avenue as examples.
The department implemented a new street crimes unit this summer that spent time on foot and car patrol in those areas. Street crimes patrols arrested 138 people between June 10 through Aug. 30.
An increase in traffic stops, vehicle searches with police canines and search warrants served at homes also were a deterrent to violent crime, Salem said, adding that many guns were confiscated. He noted that the number of search warrants and traffic stops tripled this year.
The city narcotics unit also has been working closely with the district attorney to selectively target out-of-towners coming in to sell drugs, Salem pointed out.
“We were successful in driving them from New Castle by either arresting them or showing them that New Castle is not a good place for them to sell.”
Several years ago, he added, the city had a problem with drug dealers from Detroit infiltrating the high-crime areas, “but those numbers aren’t what they used to be.”
Salem said he and Lawernce County District Attorney Joshua Lamancusa have been working with the management of Crestview Gardens, a private housing complex, to provide more lighting, video surveillance and identification cards to residents to prevent trespassing.
Once the police make arrests, the success of keeping violent criminals off the streets also falls to the courts to set higher bonds and use stricter guidelines in letting them out of jail.
“We hope that (they) set high enough bonds to keep dangerous individuals locked up,” Salem said, adding Lamancusa’s office has been successful in prosecuting violent offenders.
Lamancusa said a change in policing tactics — targeting violent offenders through drug investigations — has made a big difference.
“Using narcotics investigation to attack violent offenders is an effective system,” he said.
And Salem doesn’t discount that the city had close calls and one homicide that could have occurred within its borders last year.
An alleged Oct. 18 break-in at 315 Hillcrest Ave. resulted in Michael Foster, 45, of 6 E. Euclid Ave. suffering multiple gunshot wounds to the head and neck. His injuries came close to being fatal, and may be permanently debilitating, Salem said. Two residents of that address also were injured by gunshots that night.
A domestic violence incident that ended in tragedy involved two city residents, but occurred in Union Township. Carlos Harper, 27, fatally shot his estranged girlfriend, Mariah Jai Anderson, 22, Nov. 17 after she completed a shift at Walmart. The next morning, he killed himself in Beaver County.
“There is no guaranteed system to eliminate violent crime,” Lamancusa said.
“We’re going to be fighting it forever,” Salem added, “but we are encouraged by the statistics.”