HARRISBURG – State, county and local law enforcement officers appeared before the House Majority Policy Committee Thursday to highlight efforts to serve their communities in the face of growing challenges and changing attitudes in some regions of the state.
The capitol hearing was led by Majority Policy Committee Chairman Martin Causer (R-Cameron/McKean/Potter) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rob Kauffman (R-Franklin).
“Without question, our law enforcement officers are truly the backbone of our communities and our Commonwealth,” Causer said. “We are blessed across the state by men and women who put their lives on the line each and every day to keep the peace, prevent crime, protect property and save lives. It’s clear the men and women who testified before the committee today are 110% committed to their oath to ‘protect and serve.’ We all need to do our part to support their efforts.”
In the wake of protests related to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier this year, the topic of police-community relations and the importance of ensuring a relationship of trust was a common theme among many of the testifiers.
“The hearing today brought to light a lot of interesting ideas about how we can improve policing in Pennsylvania. The chief of police from a community I represent, Ron Camacho of the Chambersburg Police Department, talked in detail about the importance of community engagement, especially in minority communities that have long been underserved,” said Kauffman. “Through a concerted effort of talking with the public, going to schools and churches, using the power of social media and having a presence at local community events, the Chambersburg police force has built a relationship with the communities it represents that has led to greater public support and trust. This is something all law enforcement agencies could and should focus on to improve community-police relationships.”
Les Neri, president of PA State Lodge, Fraternal Order of Police, reiterated the value of community policing initiatives, especially those that reach the youth population; however, many departments have been forced to drop such outreach efforts due to a lack of funding. He suggested additional grants through the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency could help reinstate some of these programs at a time when community outreach is more critical than ever.
Responding to calls by some to “defund” police, York County District Attorney Dave Sunday noted a properly trained and well-funded police force is critical to meaningful criminal justice reform. “The call to simply defund the police, cut police budgets, divert or divest funds, or anything of the like, is a false and dangerous narrative,” Sunday said “In fact, eliminating police funding would disproportionately endanger the very vulnerable populations that advocates of this flawed premise seek to aid. No service given to any member of our community can be effective if it cannot be delivered safely. Only one public entity guarantees this basic need for safety, and that is law enforcement.”
Sunday also cited the importance of dealing with the underlying issues that lead some to commit crimes. In his office, they use Wellness courts to more effectively help people with drug, alcohol or mental health issues.
Scott Bohn, executive director of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, noted the Commonwealth is one of just a few states to pass meaningful reforms into law after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which resulted in protests in communities large and small across the nation. While calling for the officers involved to be held accountable for their actions, he also stressed that tragedies like it “should not undermine the legitimacy of law enforcement in Pennsylvania, without which we will continue towards a path of disorder and increased crime. We must target wrongdoing rather than disparaging entire police departments and the policing profession. Law enforcement officers are the guardians of the public.”
Pennsylvania State Troopers Association President David Kennedy, in written testimony submitted to the committee, also acknowledged the importance of police in maintaining order and specifically highlighted the efforts of the Pennsylvania State Police on social justice issues. “Our Office of Heritage Affairs serves as an ally to victims of hate crimes and as a mediator between law enforcement and community members involved in contentious situations,” he wrote. “This office also teaches cadets about cultural diversity, racial profiling awareness and implicit bias. We provide these services to other police departments that request it.”
Additional testimony was offered by Keir Bradford-Grey, chief defender for the Defender Association of Philadelphia; Fayette County Sheriff James Custer, president of the Pennsylvania Sheriffs’ Association; and Thomas Maioli, Sheriffs’ Association executive director.
The hearing is part of ongoing efforts in the House to address police and community issues. Earlier this year, Kauffman’s Judiciary Committee led efforts to adopt new laws that will ensure proper vetting of officers before they are hired and improve training related to interactions with individuals of diverse backgrounds. That committee has announced it will hold a public hearing on Sept. 15 to discuss police training and department accreditation.
Representative Martin T. Causer
67th Legislative District
Representative Rob Kauffman
89th Legislative District
Pennsylvania House of Representatives