By Steve Novotney
If Wheeling residents wish to continue living in one of the safest cities in America, picking up the phone and reporting what they consider “suspicious activity” is where they should begin their efforts to preserve the status quo.
“9-1-1,” said Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger. “It’s really that easy. If we know about it, we can investigate it. If we don’t know about it, then the crime will take place unless we’re already watching. But no one should take that for granted just because they see our cruisers in the area at the time.
“Those cruisers could be in the area on a patrol or for a completely different reason,” the chief said. “The best thing for a citizen to do is to place that call and tell us what they think they see.”
That is because reducing the small amount of crime that takes place in the Friendly City can be realized with an increase in community interaction with the Wheeling Police Department, Schwertfeger insisted. Proof, he said, can be seen in the East Wheeling section of the Friendly City.
“We have had a lot of positive feedback right now coming out of East Wheeling, and I am thrilled to death that we have a lot of younger folks moving into that neighborhood,” he said. “There are a lot of folks who live in East Wheeling right now who are very active and want to improve the quality of life there.
“That’s exactly what we all need because that is a formula for success, and we have realized the dividends there,” Schwertfeger continued. “And there are a lot of other areas in our city where people are doing the exact same thing. That helps us as a department, and that helps the people who live in those neighborhoods.”
Schwertfeger is familiar with East Wheeling’s history. Once one of the more prominent neighborhoods in Wheeling and the home of many historic Victorian-style residential structures, the neighborhood evolved away from remarkable to a section of the city most parents instructed their children to avoid. Drug trafficking became familiar and frequent, East Wheeling’s reputation spiraled, and the neighborhood’s long-term residents hid themselves from the new reality.
“But then those folks got tired of it, and they did something about it,” said Schwertfeger, who also has been impressed with the efforts made by Wheeling Island residents since he accepted the chief’s position in spring 2012. “In East Wheeling, they started a Crime Watch organization, and that has led to a lot of residents participating. That’s how it happens, and that’s what I would like to see in every single neighborhood in our city.”
Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie has witnessed the transformation of the East Wheeling neighborhood during the past seven years, as well as the improved relationship between its residents and members of law enforcement. McKenzie, who led the effort to demolish more than 20 blighted pieces of abandoned property to help make way for the J.B. Chambers Recreation Park on the corner of 15th and Wood, agreed with the police chief that the people have made the difference.
“I can remember a time while I was growing up that the last part of the city you wanted to go into was East Wheeling, and that was because of the criminal activity that was taking place,” he said. “At that time, if you were seen there, you were automatically connected to that activity.
“That’s not the case today, and that’s because of the residents and because of the interaction that’s taken place with the police department,” he said. “And that environment is gone. Now, does crime still take place? Of course it does, but the same can be said about every neighborhood in every community in the United States.”
During a time in the U.S. when the relationship between law enforcement and the public has been placed in question, Schwertfeger said he believes he and his officers possess a healthy relationship with the citizens of Wheeling. It is not by mistake, he insisted, and that is because of his “open mind” and “open dialogue” policies.
“The way I approach it is I keep an open mind to everything, including perceptions because perceptions can be just as important as reality sometimes,” he explained. “And we make efforts to keep an open dialogue with our residents if there is interest in that.
“I and the officers in our department are very committed to the citizens of Wheeling no matter who they are or where they live,” he said. “As the chief, I want our residents to feel comfortable with my decision-making. That’s also very important to me, and I believe that’s one of the reasons why I believe our officers have a good relationship with the people in Wheeling.”
Just a few months after returning to his native Upper Ohio Valley, the police chief established the Office of Professional Standards within the Wheeling Police Department.
“I address my officers about professionalism and the importance of being professional and treating all people with respect,” he said. “We do community policing, and we are going to take it to the next level, and that’s because we need to get away from the ‘robots wearing Oakleys’ thing.
“I encourage my officers to get out of their cruisers when they have the time and interact with the members of our communities,” Schwertfeger continued. “They need to talk to the residents on their beats, and they have to get to know them so they can develop trust. That’s what it’s all about.
“I love the attitudes and the work ethic of our department right now. They really come together when they public needs them the most. I’m very proud of that,” Schwertfeger said. “We all come together even in trying times.”
Statistical data from the first six months of 2014 pertaining to the arrests made by officers of the Wheeling Police Department revealed that four out every 10 arrests made in the Friendly City were non-Wheeling residents, including the majority of apprehensions involving drug trafficking.
“Our officers have experienced a downward trend for the majority of the crimes committed in the city of Wheeling during the past several months,” he said. “But there are issues involving drug trafficking, and most of those arrests are of people who don’t live here but come into the city to try to sell what they want to sell.
“We work closely with the members of the Ohio Valley Drug Task Force and with the federal government, and that cooperation has led to the arrests and convictions of people from East Ohio and from Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and several other areas,” he said. “It’s a never-ending cycle it seems, but I’m sure every police chief in the world would tell you the same thing.”
The number of Americans seeking careers in law enforcement has dwindled since Schwertfeger graduated from West Liberty University in 1988 with a criminal justice degree. He believes the reasons for this decline are the public perception of police officers, the danger inherent in the profession, and the compensation.
“The people who become police officers do so because they want to help people, and we know if that’s what we choose, we’ll never become a rich man or woman,” the chief explained. “As far as my decision to get into law enforcement is concerned, it was about trying to make a difference.
“I knew early on that I wasn’t going to save the world, but if I can make a difference in people’s lives and set a good example, then I have accomplished my goals,” Schwertfeger said. “Those things are very important to me, and I think a lot of police officers would say the same thing.”