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Community policing can build relationships that foster trust, panelists say

Martin UmbergerWEBPress And Journal Staff Photo by Eric Wise -- Robert Martin, Susquehanna Township’s public safety director, and Jason Umberger, police chief in Swatara Township, discuss community policing during a panel held at Penn State Harrisburg on Sept. 13.


Police need to build strong relationships with the communities they serve in order to develop a mutual trust and understanding, panelists agreed during a Sept. 13 discussion at Penn State Harrisburg. 

In Susquehanna Township, police responded to about 15,000 calls this year, said Robert Martin, the township’s public safety director. When this number is multiplied by the police departments throughout the nation, police have millions of interactions with the public, and yet they are scrutinized based on only a few. 

Many members of the public consume news and gain familiarity with the names of those killed by police in recent years, including Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and Walter Scott, said Jennifer Gibbs of Penn State. 

Moderator Shaun Gabbidon, distinguished professor or criminal justice at Penn State, said finding the exact number of police shootings per year has proven difficult. The FBI has placed the number at about 400 per year, while media investigations have shown 945 to 1,100 per year. Local police have not been given an effective way to report officer involved shootings to improve accountability for police nationwide.

These heavily publicized police shootings, especially when scrutinized by the media without an understanding of the entire incident and circumstances, fueled a misconception that “racial misconduct is the rule,” said Jason Umberger, police chief in Swatara Township. “It lit a fire, especially in minority communities,” he said.

“Violence and hateful rhetoric against police is at an all-time high,” he said. 

Martin began his remarks by reminding the audience that law enforcement officers are killed in the line of duty often, about one every 61 hours. 

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund reported 123 deaths in the line of duty during 2015, with 41 deaths from shootings. Comparing year-to-date law enforcement fatalities through Sept. 15 of both years, 83 officers died in 2016, two fewer than the same period in 2015. From 2015, the other top causes of officers’ deaths include 34 killed in auto crashes, 22 from job-related illnesses and 10 struck by a vehicle. The same source reports that about 200 officers died in line of duty from 1967 to 1982, which was the worst period for police deaths except for the period of Prohibition.

Relationships key

Umberger and Martin agreed that building relationships and trust are key to maintaining a strong relationship with residents of the communities they serve. 

“Most times we are called to have contact with people are unfortunate events,” Martin said. Instead, he wants officers “out of the car, interacting with the public in positive situations,” he said. 

“One of the worst inventions and one of the best inventions is the climate controlled police car,” he said. This began when more people had moved to the suburbs from the cities. “Foot patrol was no longer conducive,” he said. However, using cars to cover a larger area meant that officers are “not on foot having personal contact.” 

“The best policing takes place when the officer is out of the car, not in the car,” he said.

This emphasis on community policing got a boost in the 1990s, thanks to the support of President Bill Clinton, Martin said.

Umburger said community policing relies on using officers nondirected time for positive interactions. He said he’s encouraged by initiatives his officers take, including stopping at schools and having lunch with students. 

Swatara Townnship police spent about 82 percent of their shifts with directed time, which is the time they are responding to calls, Umburger said. In order to increase his officers available time for an ideal amount of community policing, they should raise that 18 percent in nondirected time to about 45 percent. However, based on Swatara Township Police’s current call volume, they would need 20 new officers to make that happen. 

An emphasis on making the best use of nondirected time for community policing is a topic Umberger said he uses in officer performance reviews to provide encouragement. 

Research to back it up?

Jonathan Lee, a Penn State professor and consultant to local police departments, cited opinion polls, specific to Pennsylvania, that have shown that many people are generally supportive of the police, with more than 80 percent of respondents having confidence in the police. The support is particularly strong from white people, but is not universal, said Lee, who was a panelist.

“Black respondents have low confidence in the police,” Lee said. 

Those who interacted with police, as a victim of crime or recipient of a traffic ticket, also show lower confidence than the study as a whole, Lee said. 

Lee said a study of Penn State students also examined other variables that affect perceptions, including asking whether respondents knew an officer by his or her first name or if they feel comfortable speaking with them. When respondents had positive reactions — and a closer “social distance” — the difference in confidence level in the police was eliminated between black and white respondents. Lee said he hopes to expand the study to include Swatara Township and Harrisburg residents, and may eventually expand it to include all of Dauphin County.

Clues from history

In contrast, following the killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, a national Gallup poll showed a higher distrust of police in the black community. At the time, both President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged in public comments that there is a history of tension between police and the black community in many parts of the nation.

Blacks have historic reasons for being suspicious of police, Gabbidon said. 

“The police have always been a part of black people’s lives,” he said. He referenced a history of issues black people in America have had with the police since the abolition of slavery.

Umberger stressed the role of police is to remain unbiased. 

“Police swear an oath to the law without regard to race or social standing,” he said.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 20 September 2016 15:50

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Vote is Sept. 6 on reducing council members, not electing them by ward

A final vote to change how Middletown voters elect councilors will be on the agenda of council’s next meeting Sept. 6.

Council on Aug. 3 voted 5-2 to advertise an ordinance to replace the current practice of electing councilors by ward with at-large elections — meaning all councilors would be elected by voters throughout all of Middletown. 

The ordinance would also reduce the size of council from nine members to seven.

Council did not act on the ordinance during its Aug. 16 meeting because the proposal had not been advertised long enough, Council President Ben Kapenstein told the Press And Journal.

Currently, three councilors are elected by voters from each of the three wards. The First Ward covers voters in the lower third of the town, the Second Ward covers the middle of the borough and the Third Ward covers the northern third.

The wards have been in place since 1971. However, supporters of at-large elections led by Mayor James H. Curry III contend that given the ease of communication brought on by cellphones and social media, it should no longer matter where a member of council lives.

Supporters on the present council also say that they respond to the needs of all residents throughout Middletown, regardless of what ward they live in.

The advertised ordinance also says that the nine-member council “has become unwieldy and has experienced regular and recurring vacancies.” Reducing the size of council to seven “will result in expediency, efficiency, and a reduction in expenditures,” the proposal says.

Council has two vacant seats due to prior resignations, one in the First Ward and the other in the Third Ward.

Curry has said now is the time to reduce the size of council, as the vacancies would not have to be filled and none of the current seven councilors would be affected.

Six residents applied to fill the First Ward vacancy. However, the borough received no applicants for the Third Ward seat.

First Ward council member Robert Reid, the borough’s longtime former mayor, has been most outspoken in opposing the change. He has said there is no compelling reason for getting rid of the wards, and that not all residents will feel adequately represented on council under at-large elections.

If Middletown goes through with the change it would join most of the rest of the county in electing representatives at-large. 

All but five of the 16 boroughs in Dauphin County elect councilors at large. 

Royalton is one of the five boroughs where voters still elect councilors by ward. All but two of the 23 townships in Dauphin County elect their representatives by ward.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 30 August 2016 15:57

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Resurfacing 322 ramp for Hummelstown/Middletown

Eastbound off-ramp closed Sunday from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. Monday

Motorists traveling on US 322 in Derry Twp. have been alerted by PennDOT of work to begin Sunday, May 15.

Hempt Brothers, contractor for the project will eastbound U.S. 322 off-ramp for Hummelstown/Middletown from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. the following morning. Milling and resurfacing work will be undertaken, weather permitting.

The work is part of an ongoing $13 million construction project that began May 8 to repair and resurface a seven mile section of US 322 between the Eisenhower Interchange in Swatara Twp. and the Hershey interchange with Route 39 and US 422 in Derry Twp.

The contract includes roadway base repair, milling and resurfacing the existing roadway and shoulders with new asphalt. On the concrete portions of the project, the contractor will make concrete repairs and apply a thin friction course on the pavement. The project also includes guiderail replacement, minor drainage improvements, and curb ramp improvements associated with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Work under this construction contract is scheduled to be completed next summer.
PennDOT advises travelers that they may continue to encounter shifting traffic patterns and/or single-lane traffic restrictions through the work zone on weeknights from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. Some sections of US 322 average more than 21,000 vehicles traveled daily.

Last Updated on Friday, 13 May 2016 14:03

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PA Attorney General wants to help if you think you're getting ripped off

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane’s office cautioned both Pennsylvania consumers and businesses to be aware of the potential for price gouging following the State of Emergency declaration made by Gov. Tom Wolf.

Price gouging restrictions prohibit anyone involved in the sale or distribution of consumer goods or services from "unconscionably excessive" increases above average prices during the emergency and for 30 days after its conclusion.

The state's Price Gouging Act gives the Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection the authority to investigate price gouging complaints and allows for penalties of up to $10,000 per violation, along with restitution and injunctive relief.

The restrictions required by the act not only apply to businesses involved in direct consumer sales, but also to manufacturers, suppliers, wholesalers and distributors of consumer products and services.

Attorney General Kane also advised consumers to follow the Public Utility Commission's tips for residents during power outages, including calling utility companies instead of 9-1-1 if power is lost. Commonwealth residents also are encouraged to limit travel during power outages involving downed power lines.

Consumers can report potential price gouging by calling the Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection helpline at 800-441-2555 or by filing a consumer complaint online.


Last Updated on Friday, 22 January 2016 11:30

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Good and not so good news about Dauphin Co.'s 2016 budget


Property taxes held for record 11th year but state funding shortfalls could force tax increase in 2017, commissioners warns

The good news? Dauphin Co. Commissioners passed a $243 million budget for 2016 that holds the line on taxes for an 11th year straight. 

The not-so-good news? Commissioners warned potential cuts in state funding could jeopardize that record next year.

 “The state currently owes Dauphin Co. almost $30 million in human services funding’” said commission Chairman Jeff Haste. “This is forcing us to seek a $20 million tax anticipation note to keep cash flow going until we start getting local tax revenue in mid-February.

 “But we’ll have a larger problem if some of the significant cuts to human services funding that are being discussed makes it into the final state budget,. If we see a $6 million cut in Children and Youth funding, that equals a half-mill of taxes.’’

 Haste, who serves as the 2015 County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania’s (CCAP) board chairman, said the organization is committed to working with lawmakers to ensure human services funding isn’t held hostage in future budget impasses.

 “In Dauphin County, we’re fortunate that our careful budgeting allowed us to cover human services funding thus far without borrowing,’’ Haste said. “But other counties have been forced to cut back on services and borrow. Luzerne County had its bond rating downgraded due in large part to the deficit created by the state withholding $20 million in funding.’’

Commissioner Mike Pries stressed if the county is forced to raise taxes, it won’t be a decision the board makes lightly.

 “This board weighs the potential impact to the taxpayer in every decision we make,” Pries said. “We’ve managed to keep the lid on property taxes for 11 years, but it’s a record we can continue only if the state doesn’t slash funding for vital services.’’ 

Commissioner George P. Hartwick, III echoed his fellow commissioner’s concerns, noting the state is causing “significant uncertainty’’ about the county’s budget next year. 

“State lawmakers are considering pushing back $172 million counties are owed in children and youth funding into the next fiscal year to help balance the budget,’’ Hartwick said. “Counties are seeing record numbers of child abuse reports in the wake of new child protection laws. If the state doesn’t adequately fund these services, it’s local taxpayers that are forced to make up the difference.’’



Last Updated on Wednesday, 16 December 2015 16:29

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