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Bucks State Reps, Sen. Farry To Introduce Expanded Criminal DNA Bill

Ashley Spence burst into tears when she heard a judge sentence the man who raped and nearly killed her to almost 138 years in prison.

“As I stood in the back of the courtroom and heard these words, my head fell into my hands, and I began to cry,” said Spence. “I cried for the pain. I cried for the justice that I finally felt after 13 long years. I cried for the protection I now felt, not just for myself but for my children. But mostly, I cried because I knew this man would never be able to harm another person again.”

In 2003, when Spence was 19 and a sophomore at Arizona State University, she moved into an apartment and went to bed “thinking that I was safe.”

But during the night, “while I was asleep, an intruder came into my apartment, suffocated my face with a pillow and began to tear off my clothes from the waist down…I thought it was a nightmare.”

Her assailant beat her and raped her while keeping a pillow over her face.

(From left) Sen. Frank Farry, Rep. K.C. Tomlinson, Sheriff Fred Harran, Ashley Spence, and Rep. Joe Hogan.

“The entire time, I could not see the face of the monster that was committing these horrific crimes against me,” Spence said. “I’m so fortunate I survived, but he got away, and I never saw his face.”

Spence spoke at a press conference called by Bucks County state Reps. Joe Hogan, K.C. Tomlinson, and Sen. Frank Farry, along with Bucks County Sheriff Fred Harran, spoke about a new bill that would require DNA samples to be taken from people arrested for felonies and some misdemeanors.

Seven years after he raped her, Spence’s assailant was arrested for a different crime in California and linked to her attack through DNA. She founded the DNA Justice Project to push for states to change their laws so that DNA is taken for felony arrests, not just when a criminal is convicted. So far, 19 states do. Hogan, Tomlinson, Farry, and Harran want Pennsylvania to be next.

“This is something that we believe is important to the state of Pennsylvania,” said Hogan (R-Feasterville-Trevose). “Current law in Pennsylvania is that DNA is collected post-conviction for some crimes. The law notably excludes homicide (which is taken on arrest).”

The proposed law would require DNA collection for felony arrest. If a person is exonerated, their DNA will be taken out of the system. There is great potential for solving cold cases, like the Fairmount Park rapist, Hogan said. Just last year, DNA linked a suspect to several 2003 rapes and a murder.

“The changes we are proposing mean that when an individual is booked for one of these crimes, their DNA is taken at the same time as their fingerprint. These two procedures are fundamentally the same. But as we know, DNA is vastly more accurate,” said Hogan.

Tomlinson (R-Bensalem) said, “There is no denying we’ve all been seeing a steady rise in crime, not only in this state but across this country. Unfortunately, crime has become a real concern in my district. Over 40 percent of the individuals arrested and committing crime in my hometown do not even reside there.”

The DNA tests would also help prove a person was innocent, she added.

Farry (R-Bucks) said he would introduce a companion bill in the Senate.

“What we’ve seen is DNA is an incredible tool,” said Harran. “We’ve started doing some outside-the-box approaches using DNA, and we saw some significant crime reduction. But crime has been going up recently.”

“What I’ve found is in Pennsylvania, there’s a loophole,” said Harran, formerly Bensalem’s director of public safety. “We are one of 19 states that do not take DNA at the time of arrest, which is a mistake. DNA in Pennsylvania it’s taken once you’re convicted of a felony…That DNA that’s taken is way too late. We need to take DNA at the time of arrest…The Supreme Court has already talked about this in 2013 in a case (from) Maryland. DNA is just another tool. It’s probably one of the best tools I’ve seen in the last 38 years. We have some great crime reduction numbers to prove that.”

“In Lower Bucks County, 16 times we’ve used DNA to exonerate people,” said Harran. “This prevents crime. You’re getting criminals off the street immediately…And tomorrow, they will be one less victim out there.”

Spence said, “DNA is science. DNA is accurate. DNA is true.”

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Bucks County Rep’s Bill Confronts Dangers From ‘Tranq’

A group of Bucks County lawmakers held a press conference in September to announce they were working on bills to fight increased crime. One issue they focused on was the increase in drug addiction and overdoses.

This week, state Rep. Kristin Marcell’s bill to require the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP) to educate people about xylazine, dubbed “tranq,” passed out of committee and will be voted on by the House.

“Over the past several years, law enforcement officers and public health professionals have detected an increase in the prevalence of the illicit use of xylazine, an animal tranquilizer – or ‘tranq’ – in street drugs used in the commonwealth,” Marcell said. “In fact, about half of all Pennsylvania counties saw cases where illicit use of xylazine caused a death in 2021. Worse, 90 percent of the opioids sampled by the city of Philadelphia showed xylazine in 2021.”

The federal Department of Drug Enforcement has released an alert about the dangers of this new deadly drug mix.

“Xylazine is making the deadliest drug threat our country has ever faced, fentanyl, even deadlier,” said Administrator Anne Milgram. “DEA has seized xylazine and fentanyl mixtures in 48 of 50 states. The DEA Laboratory System is reporting that in 2022, approximately 23 percent of fentanyl powder and 7 percent of fentanyl pills seized by the DEA contained xylazine.”

Despite the dangers, most Delaware Valley residents are unaware of the threat.

“Too few people are aware of this drug’s existence. Increased public awareness of the impact of the illicit use of xylazine can help the effort to protect our residents,” Marcell added.

Under Marcell’s HB 1690, DDAP would partner with healthcare providers, community-based health centers, and hospitals to educate Pennsylvanians on the dangers of human use of xylazine.

DDAP would also create brochures and other materials with information about xylazine and how it affects the human body, how to discuss the dangers with others, and other materials needed to raise awareness of the risks “tranq” poses.

Drug dealers use xylazine, designed as a horse tranquilizer, as a cutting agent for heroin and fentanyl, which people then use. Those who use xylazine tend to get wounds that do not readily heal.

Bucks County Sheriff Fred Harran has been at the forefront of raising awareness of xylazine. He reports an increase in people being arrested with gaping wounds from “tranq.” As a result, these suspects need to go to the hospital rather than jail, which ties up law enforcement officers who must stand guard rather than patrol the streets. That is particularly problematic for smaller departments with fewer officers.

Harran said he supports Marcell’s bill.

“Any education is good. People should be aware of it. It’s definitely positive.”

As its illicit use has grown, xylazine has attracted the attention of media and public health officials. It made national news when the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy warned the nation of its dangerous use.

Xylazine-positive overdose deaths have increased tenfold in the Southern U.S. from 2020-21, sevenfold in the Western U.S., and fivefold in the Midwest. The U.S. Department of Health recently temporarily scheduled xylazine as a controlled substance.

Bucks Sheriff Fred Harran Blasts Dem Commissioners Over Crime

Bucks County Sheriff Fred Harran says crime has been steadily rising since the COVID pandemic, and he points the finger at the county’s leadership and its lack of action. In particular, he singled out the county’s two Democratic Commissioners.

“It’s not an ‘R’ and a ‘D’ thing,” said Harran, a 38-year law enforcement professional. “It’s a safety and a police thing. They just don’t want to support the police. I’ve been quiet as long as I can, and I hate to say it, but this is the time for change.”

Since the COVID pandemic ended, “in the last couple of years, we’re seeing a pretty dramatic (crime) increase in Bucks County,” said Harran. Robbery is up 22.7 percent, burglaries are up almost 33 percent, and theft is up 21.8 percent. Auto theft is up over 30 percent.

And he accused the Democratic commissioners of lying about the crime statistics.

While Democratic Commissioners Chair Bob Harvie and Vice Chair Diane Marselgia claim crime is down, “they’re using statistics, comparing pre-COVID days to COVID days.” During the pandemic, most people stayed home, so there were fewer burglaries and car thefts, he said.

“People’s houses don’t get burglarized at night. They get burglarized during the day when they’re at work. Well, if you’re not at work and working from home, it’s hard to burglarize your help,” said Harran, who was the police superintendent in Bensalem before he was elected county sheriff. “But we’re in a post-COVID world and crime is on the rise.”

“And one of the big problems that we’re facing is the amount of drugs that are out there, and now with the new drug Xylazine (Tranq), it poses all kinds of new problems,” said Harran.

One of those problems is how people with medical issues are treated in the county system.

“The issue is the jail does not have a medical component to it,” said Harran. “So the jail will not accept anybody that has any type of medical problem. So, when a police officer arrests somebody, I’ll give you a very simple but true story. So, if your blood pressure is elevated by the time you get to the prison, they won’t take you.  So, who doesn’t get arrested and [experience] high blood pressure?

“So you have high blood pressure, they make you go to the hospital and now you’re taking police officers off the streets to go sit at a hospital while a person gets cleared and you’re posing a potential danger to the hospital,” Harran said.

“We saw what happened years ago with, in Newtown, in St. Mary’s Hospital with Officer(Brian) Gregg when he was fatally shot at  St. Mary’s,” said Harran. Robert Anthony Flor killed Gregg and wounded two other people on Sept. 26, 2005. Flor was sentenced to death.

“Prisoners don’t belong in hospitals unless they have a hospital wing that’s properly secure,” said Harran. “The county’s going to have to pay the piper and they’re going have to get with the times. And, you know, we got some people in county positions right now that just have no interest in doing that,” he said, referring to Harvie and Marseglia.

Harran also disputes claims from the two Democrats that the county is adequately funding the sheriff’s office.

“They keep telling everybody they gave me $1 million. I can’t find it in my budget anywhere.”

Officials told Harran that he can hire two additional deputies now, two later and four in 2024.

“The way they do budgeting is absurd,” said Harran. “I’m trying to get (new) vehicles in my budget. They took them out of my budget and then told me, ‘Well, if you can find the cars, them come back to us and we’ll try to get you the money. Well, I’ve been doing budget for 16 years in Bensalem and I’ve never budgeted that way — ever.

I don’t know what school of budgeting they went to, but I’s nothing I’ve ever learned.”

Harran said he came into office wanting to “play in the sandbox with everyone.”

“Until someone throws the sand in my face. I’ve been in law enforcement 38 years. They came from other professions but they don’t know jack about my job.”

Commissioners Harvie and Marseglia did not respond to requests for comment.

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Bucks County Sheriff, Commissioners Tussle Over Tax Dollars for Deputies

The Bucks County Salary Board voted 3-2 last November to allow Sheriff Fred Harran to hire eight deputies and two clerks.

But Commissioners Chair Bob Harvie and Vice Chair Diane Ellis-Marseglia voted against hiring the new deputies. And the funding for those jobs remained in limbo until a recent inquiry by a reporter, Harran told DVJournal. However, county officials disagreed with his assessment, saying the money for the deputies was approved in December.

At that November Salary Board meeting, Harran described how crime has increased in Bucks County. According to the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System, serious crime increased 18.7 percent between 2021 and 2022. That is 50 percent higher than the stateside increase of 12.7 percent.

In the county, robbery increased by 22.7 percent compared to 13.7 percent statewide; burglary in Bucks increased by 32.9 percent but only 5.9 percent in the state; and auto theft increased by 30.6 percent in Bucks and 27.7 percent in the commonwealth.

In Bensalem, there was a 12 percent increase in major crimes, and in Warrington, a 15 percent uptick, he said.

He called Philadelphia “the murder and carjacking capital” that is “at our backdoor.”

“The people breaking into our houses, the people committing retail theft, often have county warrants on them,” he said. But there are not enough deputies to serve the warrants, and there is an 8,000-warrant backlog, with about a third for felonies. And cases can be dismissed if the defendant is not served on time, he said.

“People care about if your family is not safe, your home is not safe, and your possessions are not safe. If your kids aren’t safe. There’s no bigger problem than that.”

The sheriff is also in charge of courthouse security. There were 11 judges, but now there are 15, while staff size has remained the same. And deputies transport defendants from police stations countywide to the county jail, which can take police officers off the streets for prolonged periods waiting for a deputy because of staffing shortages.

Ellis-Marseglia downplayed the need for more deputies and told Harran he needed to find approximately $1 million to pay for any new employees.

“I feel like you just scared everybody in this county, and that wasn’t necessary to do,” she said. “How are you going to pay for it? There have been 8,000 warrants out there since 2008.”

Harran said he was not the sheriff in 2008, and “8,000 warrants (for criminals) out on the street is not acceptable.”

Harvie pushed back on the sheriff’s message. “I didn’t realize Bucks County was a horrible place.” He said they are working with the courts to provide video hearings that will reduce the need for prisoner transport.

County Controller Pam Van Blunk, a Republican running for commissioner, sided with Harran.

“There was a carjacking right down the road on (Route) 611,” said Van Blunk. “One of our row officers had her catalytic converter stolen. This is not what Bucks County should be.”

Republicans Van Blunk, Harran, and Commissioner Gene DiGirolamo voted for the additional deputies and clerks, while Democrats Harvie and Ellis-Marseglia voted no.

“You’re not going to get funded,” said Ellis-Marseglia.

However, the funding was approved in December.

County Chief Operating Officer Margie McKevitt issued this statement: “The commissioners have approved and fully funded every position requested by Sheriff Harran. As has been explained to the Sheriff, once the open positions in his office are filled, additional funds will be transferred to the department if and when necessary. As a technical matter, funding transfers are budget-dependent. For example, no transfer of funds is currently needed because the Sheriff’s Office is under budget at this point due to staffing issues.

“I understand Sheriff Harran is having a difficult time hiring and retaining deputies, as we’ve seen from law enforcement entities all over the country, and this administration is hopeful he will be able to fill these positions.

“From approving $1 million to fund the addition of eight new sheriff’s deputies to putting multiple co-responders on the streets to assist local police departments, these commissioners, in unanimous bipartisan votes, have always supported law enforcement.”

DiGirolamo did not respond to requests for comment.

Both Van Blunk and DiGirolamo have been endorsed by Bucks County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 53 and are promising to fight crime.

“The Philadelphia crime wave has been seeping into Bucks County,” said Van Blunk. “From what I hear from my constituents, not just residents of Lower Bucks but also Upper Bucks. Everybody’s been touched by the crime wave.”

“Safety and security of our county and its residents will be our top priority if elected,” said Van Blunk. “We have a track record of standing with law enforcement and working to ensure they have the tools they need to protect our communities.”

For example, she said they plan to help school districts place resource officers in every school.

 

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