CLEONA, Pa (WHTM) — It’s been a month since Jeffrey Farneski arrived in his new town to a somewhat hostile welcome by residents.
“I was kind of pre-warned. I knew there was going to be people,” recalls Farneski, referring to a borough council meeting on November 2. “I didn’t expect the number. I really didn’t expect that.”
That night, the usually poorly attended meeting of Cleona Borough Council was overrun with dozens of residents, angered over the reported hiring of Farneski. Days before the meeting, a local newspaper article noted several lawsuits that Farneski had been part of during his career, and an accusation of domestic violence made by his ex-wife. Borough Council defended the hiring of Farneski over several other candidates, and said an extensive background check cleared him of any wrongdoing.
Farneski remembers standing in the back of the room that evening as residents peppered council members with heated comments and questions about him, at times booing and shouting. “I’m not gonna say it was the most comfortable experience, but I think it had to be done,” he adds. “I understand why they did it.”
He also remembers how the tone of the meeting changed when he went against original plans, and stood before the crowd to answer those questions and concerns directly. “Everybody’s been great, and everybody’s welcomed me since,” he says. “I think I put them at ease.”
Since reporting for duty as chief the following day, Farneski says he’s made some immediate changes. “I start at 7 (am) now. The old chief started at 8. The shift is 7am-5pm. That puts police on the streets when the little kids are getting on the bus, and the older kids are getting home at night. I think that’s important.”
Farneski, an FBI National Academy graduate who’s 28 year career includes stints as an undercover narcotics cop, detective and crime scene investigator, now leads a department of just four officers, including himself. The department’s patrol area includes a roughly one square mile section of Cleona borough, and a larger rural section of neighboring North Annville Township. While he insists he was hired for his experience and training, he denies that he was brought in to deal specifically with drug issues that can creep into small towns within short proximity of larger cities, like Lebanon and Harrisburg.
“Drugs are here,” says Farneski. “I mean, whether its heroin, crack cocaine, cocaine. They’re not immune to it, in a sense, because you’re a small town. You could have a drug overdose tonight. I mean it happens, unfortunately. You know, and it’s in the schools. Its there. It’s a fact of life.”
Farneski, who earns $61,000 annually from Cleona, also collects a pension after retiring from a previous job in New Jersey. He says he’s always wanted to work in a small town, and believes his job as chief will allow him to help prevent crime before it happens.
“Somebody calls up. (They say) I have a problem with my son. Can you come talk to him? What advice can you give him? What programs are out there?” he says. “As a detective, when I got called, there’s already a problem, and it’s usually too late. That’s what I dealt with for years.”
Already dealing with his first police budget for 2016, Farneski says the department will acquire a new vehicle in the coming year. He says he also hopes to incorporate more modern training for his staff of officers, and build meaningful community programs. One idea he’s floating is a program where police officers check in periodically on local senior citizens.
“When people go on vacation or an extended leave, they call us and ask us to check around their property,” says Farneski. “That’s a service we provide. Why not take the same amount of time and check in on some of the older people who may not have a lot of family support? I think that is important, and I would want that for my parents or grandparents if I was a living far away from them.”
As for that memorable first impression by citizens at the borough council meeting a month ago, Farneski stresses “I’ve kind of put it behind me at this point.” But he does recall a few memorable moments in the days that followed his public vetting. “The next day, I had a 14-year-old boy come into my office. He wanted to ask me some questions about my experience and things, because he never got the chance at the meeting. He grilled me. We sat here for about a half and hour, and when I was done answering his questions, he thanked me. I found that pretty entertaining,” he laughs. Farneski also says several people who vocally protested his hiring that evening have since “gone out of their way” to welcome him to Cleona.
While the new chief says he’s “happy about being here,” and grateful to inherit a local crime rate that is relatively small, he thinks the people of Cleona and South Annville Township are aware of changing times. That’s where he believes his high level of experience will benefit his new town.
“I don’t know when the last time there was a murder in Cleona, if ever,” says Farneski. “But I mean, I’ve dealt with numerous ones, and I’ve investigated them, from nuts to bolts. You learn a lot doing that. And what if you do get that crime? Do you want to solve it or don’t you?”
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