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Reading seeks new police strategy to involve community

Deputy Police Chief Javier Ruiz now interim chief as Richard Tornielli steps down

  • Gabriela Martínez/WITF
National Night Out in Reading, Aug. 1st, 2023.

 Courtesy of Cody Rosselli

National Night Out in Reading, Aug. 1st, 2023.

After  Reading Police Chief Richard Tornielli retired on Monday, Mayor Eddie Moran appointed Deputy Chief Javier Ruiz to take over as interim chief while the mayor finds a replacement.

Ruiz, who has worked for Reading’s police force since 1997, said recruitment is one of the main challenges facing the department. He wants to increase hiring of new officers and “shift things around” to have officers more present in the community.

On Tuesday, Ruiz was at Reading National Night Out to help foster better community-police relations.

“I want to boost morale,” he said. “Right now we’re a little bit low. So by boosting morale we can get the officers to be more out in the street than they are. I’m not saying that they’re not. They’re doing a fantastic job, but once you boost someone’s morale, they tend to work a little bit more for you.”

Moran said Tornielli’s retirement sprung from a mutual decision after they agreed a change of strategy was needed. 

Moran said he could not discuss specifics about what that strategy would look like, but the goal is to engage in more community-oriented policing.

“I’m hoping that I could find a police chief that would bring some kind of support in reaching the youth,” Moran said. “This is not just a police issue. This is a community issue. We have to come together as a community. They say it takes a village to raise a child, so that’s what I see. I see collaboration with the police department, the not-for-profit organizations, specifically working with the youth, the faith-based organizations, the school district, and our community, our parents.”

The mayor said he will conduct a national search for a candidate. That person will be required by the city’s charter to have at least a bachelor’s degree. Since Reading is more than 60% Latino, the mayor said “it would be nice” if the candidate is bilingual, but it is not a requirement. 

“I’m looking for somebody that is going to be integrated into the community, that is willing to walk the community,” Moran said.

Charles Menges, president of the Reading Fraternal Order of Police, said the department has a “staffing crisis,” and that could make it difficult to take on community-oriented projects. The agency is having trouble retaining officers, as well as attracting qualified candidates, he said, and some nights, especially weekends, shifts are “semi-regularly three to four people short.”

“That’s really where a lot of our morale problems are coming from – people getting held over for the next shift, because the shift’s too short, shifts going three to four people short or two to three people short, some version of that multiple times a week, and then getting pulled to do community events on demand of the mayor,” Menges said. “That’s the real problem here. If we don’t have the manpower to patrol the streets, we can’t do the extra stuff, and then expect there to be a change in violent crime.”

The selection of a new chief of police might also prove difficult due to the upcoming mayoral election.  There is no guarantee a new chief would retain their job if Moran is not re-elected. Moran faces Republican Joseph Nuñez in November’s general election. 

City council president Donna Reed sees this as a potential challenge.

“It creates an unsettled situation, in terms of sourcing strong candidates,” Reed said.

The department has 168 sworn officers, according to its website, but numbers fluctuate because of retirements and people leaving for other jobs, Menges said. 

The 2022 Census population estimate shows the city with a population of about 95,000. 

Some people who joined National Night Out said they have noticed issues with short-staffing, and are concerned about how that can exacerbate problems with crime in the city. 

Deidre Bair-Brown, who has lived all her life in Reading, said she hopes new leadership will focus on retention and actually “being in the community.”

Gabriela Martinez / WITF

Anthony and Deidre Bair-Brown have lived in Reading for 39 years.

“Not just driving their cars, but walking around and actually building a rapport with the neighbors and everybody getting assigned to one neighborhood so they can actually learn  a beat and be on their beat and know the people they’re servicing and they’re helping,” Bair-Brown said. “I think that would go a long way with trust and cooperation, and people speaking up as witnesses.”

Denny Williams, a chairperson for the NAACP in Reading, said he wants to see more consistent engagement efforts beyond National Night Out. He suggested community sporting events and other outside activities.

Gabriela Martinez / WITF

Dennis Williams, chairperson of the NAACP in Reading.

“It goes a long way where it protects positive energy flow, instead of police officers not being in the community. They possibly can fall under stigma. Stigmas are usually broken with education,” Williams said.

This year, Reading is using a $696,768 grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to establish a neighborhood gun violence unit and provide additional investigative support for such crimes.

In a May 5 news conference about the impact of that grant, Tornielli said the department had made  27 arrests, including 16 for felony misdemeanors and two summary arrests as of the end of April. Police served five arrest warrants and seized eight illegal firearms.

During that news conference Tornielli also highlighted that between January through the end of April homicides had decreased 60%, compared to that same time period last year. Non-fatal shootings between January and April had also decreased 69% compared to last year. 

Reading had 10 homicide reports  in 2022, according to the city police records department. This year there have been 8 so far. All 2022 and 2023 homicides resulted from gun violence.

But officials are concerned about ongoing issues with youth violence. The first homicide of the year happened in downtown Reading. An 18- and  19-year-old allegedly shot and killed a 47-year-old man in front of a high-rise apartment building and are now facing murder charges. In June, a 22-year-old man and a 15-year-old boy were injured in a shooting.  

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