City Council candidates divided on Allentown crime and policing issues

Written by on April 26, 2021

City Council candidates divided on Allentown crime and policing issues

By Genesis Ortega

April 26, 2021

Screenshot of the virtual forum with the candidates for the four open seats on the Allentown City Council.

In the May 18 primary election, nine Democrats and one Republican are vying for four open seats on City Council, a seven-member legislative body. At a recent forum hosted by The Morning Call, candidates were asked to speak on several topics including sustainability, jobs, the budget, and homelessness. 

Listen to the story.

But what got the most attention was crime and policing. 

For the most part, the candidates were in lockstep on the issues and there was even a moment when progressive Democrat, Justan Parker Fields, agreed with the Republican, Tom Houck

“We can probably end this forum early because me and Tom can agree on something, so I’m good for the night,” Parker Fields says. 

But when it came down to reimagining public safety, even the Democrats had opposing views. 

The question that kicked off the discussion was whether the city should spend more on the police department or throw out the current model and shift funding to other programs. 

Incumbent City Councilwoman Cynthia Mota was the first to chime in.

“I really believe that if the police department receives a phone call and it has to do with mental health, they should not be the ones going. I think that we have to find innovative ways of dealing with people with mental health and substance abuse,” Mota says.

Mota chairs the public safety committee. But her fellow incumbent, Daryl Hendricks, who is a retired Allentown police officer, had a different take. 

“A social worker will not be the first responder to calls for 911 and calls for somebody who’s having a mental issue. It’s too dangerous, and in many cases, they will end up becoming the victims,” Hendricks says.  

He does believe in community policing, Hendricks says, which focuses on developing relationships with people in neighborhoods. 

Erik Rodriguez, who runs a daycare and learning center, was the youngest candidate in the forum. The 25-year-old said one way to improve relationships is by expanding the city’s ride-along program so that it includes students as young as middle school. 

“You start with the next generation of people to change the perspective of the way we view police officers and the way police officers view people,” Rodriguez says. 

Community organizer Patrick Palmer says he supports reallocating funds away from the police department for other programs. 

“There’s no reason that we can’t look into other alternatives to policing. And to say that policing is what we need, it’s an archaic form of systemic issues,” Palmer says. 

Allentown businessman Tino Babayan owns an auto detail shop. He said he feels the problem is that the police department is underfunded. 

“I think their budget is low. I think they should get more money because first of all we’re short on officers,” Babayan says. 

Allentown currently has 228 officers, Babayan says, short of the 300 the city needs to have a fully staffed police force. 

Incumbent Councilman Ed Zucal is a retired Allentown police officer. 

“If and when I’m reelected there will be no defunding of the police. Depleting or trying to deplete the police is absolutely ludicrous,” Zucal says.

Tom Houck, also a retired Allentown police officer, is the lone Republican candidate. He called the idea of defunding the police “absurd and unproductive.”

“Unless you’ve had some time on the street wearing the uniform and going to calls, you don’t have a clear perception of what it’s like,” Houck says.

That statement drew the attention of Justan Parker Fields, the president of the local chapter of Black Lives Matter. He said he’s on the fence with community policing initiatives because of the trauma people face as a result of police brutality. 

“And yes in response to Tom, I have no experience what it’s like to be a police officer, the same way that he has no experience what it’s like to be a Black man living in America,” Parker Fields says.

Santo Napoli, who owns a men’s clothing store on Hamilton Street, said he supports giving the police department more resources and spoke in favor of the city’s current police chief, Glenn Granitz.

“He pays the penance for all these unacceptable acts that happen across the country. They’re not happening here but the pressure on Chief Granitz has been really high and I just hope that people realize how good of a police department we have here in Allentown, Napoli says. 

Nine of the ten city council candidates took part in the forum. Natalie Santos, a 21-year-old college student, was a no-show. 

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the city of Allentown, so it’s likely that those who come out on top in the Democratic primary on May 18 will go on to win the general election. 

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