WARREN - Police Chief Eric Merkel told a group of about 20 people on Tuesday to expect changes over the next several years.
"We are about to start a street crime unit," he said. "The officers in the street crime unit will be able to address some of the issues that emergency services do not have time to address."
Plans are for six officers to be assigned to the unit.
"Officers in the street crime unit will be able to sit on a house for four to five hours investigating a complaint," Merkel said. "These guys will have the time available, flexible schedule to do what they have to do."
The new police chief spoke at a meet-and-greet held at First United Methodist Church, 309 N. Park Ave. He said he wants to be more involved with the block watch groups in the city. While there are about 14 registered with the city, the new police chief estimates there are at least 20 active groups.
"I would like to have them all registered with the city," Merkel said. "We want to be able to get information from them and in turn information to the block watches. We have 62 police officers in the department and they can't do everything and be everywhere.
Tribune Chronicle / Raymond L. Smith
New Warren police Chief Eric Merkel says the department is looking at more bike patrols during festivals, among other changes coming to the police department.
"I want to rely on the community more and solicit information," he said. "You know your neighborhood. You know the people who belong there and those who don't belong there."
The department is adding new officers as it sees some middle level and upper level officers retire.
"We are trying to build up the force on the street," he said.
Merkel said the department is about complete with a program of improvements ordered by the U.S. Justice Department in 2004 after a series of complaints were filed against the department by the community.
"Over the course of nine years, we've done a number of changes in the police department, including how we handle citizen complaints," he said. "We try to respond to complaints as quickly as possible."
Warren police have worked with the Justice Department in addressing more than 100 different issues
"We have four policies that have been going back and forth for close to a year, including use of force, the the use of tasers, a pepper spray policy and an ASP tactical baton policy," he said. "Last week we got an OK from them that these policies are good to go."
Merkel said a lot of changes the Justice Department recommended should have been implemented a long time ago.
"We are taking their recommendations to heart," he said.
Merkel said having a prosecutor working directly in the police department has helped the department solidify cases.
Responding to a question from Municipal Court Judge Thomas Gysegem, Merkel said there will be more bike patrols in the downtown area.
"We sent some officers through a three-day course dealing with bike patrols," he said. "Officers will be able to get places they normally would not get to. The officers will be able to weave in and out of parking areas and traffic on the bikes."
The department also is getting more computerized in its 911 center and in vehicles that officers drive.
"We are able to check on anyone we stop by putting their information in the mobile laptops in the cars," Merkel said. "We can pull up their photos, driving records, arrest records and many other things that officers may need when determining what to do."
The majority of the city's police cars have global positioning units built into them, so the department can determine where they are at all time. If an officer is in trouble, the dispatcher can send the closest other vehicle in the area.
"While we have 62 officers, we can call other departments and have some 250 law enforcement officers in the city at any time," he said.
Martha Conyer, who operates a re-entry program called Free In Deed for prisoners returning home, said she was pleased with what she heard from the police chief.
"I came here to hear what he is expecting to do and what policies he plans to implement," Conyer said. "He seemed sincere and transparent."
Conyer said she wants to make sure people coming through her program will not be a detriment to the community.
Raymond Allen of Warren said he wanted to make sure the police chief would foster a sense of accountability on both average citizens and police officers.
"We are constantly reviewing policies," Merkel said. "It was part of my job when I was a lieutenant. We are looking at policies to make sure they are both legal and fair."