'Safe' space: City police create 'exchange zone' in response to area online deal-turned murder

David Hurst, The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.
·2 min read

Apr. 28—Painted in bright neon green, a new Washington Street parking area next to Johnstown's Public Safety Building Parking lot is hard to miss.

And that's the point, Johnstown Police Captain Chad Miller said.

The JPD debuted the city's first "Safe Exchange Zone" Wednesday as a public space for area residents to complete online "marketplace" deals or even meet for child custody exchanges — all within view of the Johnstown Police Department's main office, Miller and fellow Captain Michael Plunkard said.

A Washington Street overflow parking space that sits adjacent to the Public Safety Building parking lot now offers three parking spaces for the public to meet.

The space was created in response to a Johnstown woman's death earlier this month after investigators said she attempted to purchase an appliance from a man she didn't know at his Geistown apartment.

The goal is to prevent the tragedy from repeating itself in the region, Plunkard said.

"This is a space that's very public ... it's underneath a street light. It's next to our parking lot, which has officers coming and going 24-7 and there's a (surveillance) camera close by," Plunkard said. "So we felt this is a much safer location for people to use."

The city added a sign marking the area as an exchange zone this week.

City police said they fast-tracked the step after Hornerstown resident Denise Williams was killed in a neighboring community, Geistown, after arriving at a borough apartment to buy a refrigerator.

Williams, a local nurse, was found fatally stabbed inside the apartment's bathroom, Geistown Police investigators said at the time.

Miller noted that local law enforcement officials have tried to raise awareness about the risks of exchanging goods in unsafe areas — including homes — but recognized there's a need for safe alternatives, because more people are turning to the internet to buy and sell goods.

"Even for a custody exchange," he said, "people are going to be less likely to try something ... next to a police station with cameras around."

Until the past year, city officials used the area for parking but a lot was created across from the Public Safety Building following a city garage demolition.

Geistown Borough Police Chief Nick Zakucia praised Johnstown Police for taking the step.

He and Cambria County District Attorney Greg Neugebauer said there's a need for similar spaces county-wide and efforts are under way to add safe exchange zones in Geistown, Cambria Township and other neighborhoods.

"It's a great idea that could literally save lives," Zakucia said.