HAZLETON — One of five people who spoke at Thursday night’s city council meeting came armed with a concealed weapon and called for the administration to purchase a body cameras for police.
Jonathan Saksek, 27, told council during public comment that he is a longtime Hazleton resident. He moved away a few years ago and just recently returned.
“The sad thing is, it’s gotten worse, it really has. I come here today armed with a gun because all over Facebook, people are saying there’s going to be riots, they don’t trust the police,” Saksek said.
City officials didn’t know what to expect at their first public meeting since a white Hazleton police officer fatally shot a Hispanic man whose family claimed the shooting was unjustified, and someone created a Facebook page to show support for the officer and Hazleton Police Department. As of Thursday, more than 2,000 people “liked” the page.
Several posts on the “We support the HPD” Facebook page encouraged people to attend the council meeting to show their support for the police, even after Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis announced on Wednesday that an investigation by her office and state police determined that the shooting was justified.
Salavantis’ report indicated that an intoxicated Garay, 29, struggled with a police officer on the back porch of his family’s Alter Street home on Oct. 5 after police pursued him there from a fight down the street.
Salavantis said Garay ignored police commands to stop fighting and, as a second officer arrived on the porch, lunged for a gun that police say fell from his waistband. After sustaining a non-lethal gunshot wound to his cheek, Garay picked up his gun and pointed it at the second officer before the officer fired a fatal shot into Garay’s torso, she said.
Garay’s family claimed the shooting happened inside Garay’s home and that his gun was holstered. About 100 family members and friends of Garay staged a rally and march last Friday to protest the shooting.
Saksek told council that city officials should spend funding on more officers and body-worn uniform cameras and audio equipment for police rather than on street-view surveillance cameras. “This will never happen again because we’ll have a detailed account on their uniforms,” he said.
“When we go and call 911, we don’t expect the police to come and badger us or to always find that everybody they talk to is guilty until proven innocent. And that is the mantra of everybody today about when they call the police. We have to somehow get the community together and trust the police. And that’s the problem,” Saksek said.
“A lot of people I grew up with have a bad rap with the police. It’s not because they’re involved in criminal activity. It’s because of the fact that we grew up with (former Luzerne County judge Mark) Ciavarella, we grew up with (former state police trooper Michael) Hartzel … We grew up with corruption in this city, and it is ridiculous,” Saksek said.
Ciavarella was convicted of racketeering and money laundering in 2011; Hartzel was convicted of simple assault in 2009 and settled a lawsuit out of court with the beating victim.
Sylvia Thomas, 77, of Hazleton, recalled hearing about Garay’s mother holding her bleeding son after he was shot.
“A mother held her dying son in her arms. We can’t imagine what she’s going through. That could have been a police officer’s mother holding her son. Maybe even two mothers. When is it going to stop?” Thomas said.
Thomas said surveillance cameras in the neighborhood might have deterred the fight that spawned the sequence of tragic events, but the city is waiting on approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on placement of street cameras because HUD requires that its funding be spent in low-to-moderate income areas.
She urged residents to contact the secretary of HUD and demand action.
Grace Cuozzo, a longtime city activist and former mayoral candidate, first spoke about the demolition of dangerous properties in the city and criticized the administration for unwise spending.
“Now, my main issue and the reason I really got up here, I would like to thank the Hazleton City Police Department,” Cuozzo said, to the only outbreak of applause at the meeting.
“The marches and everything else was ridiculous. I’ve known the police since 1987, since I’m coming to these meetings, and most of them are all good guys,” Cuozzo, 58, said. “Everybody has to realize what these men have to face every day. The city isn’t what it was. … The city’s changed very, very drastically. … And my hat goes off to each and every one of you.”