Midstate police work to improve communication with communities

Written by Tim Lambert and Radio Pennsylvania | May 12, 2015 3:46 AM

Photo by AP Photo/Matt Rourke

FILE PHOTO: A boy stands in front of a police cordon Monday, April 27, following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore.

(Harrisburg) -- In the wake of high-profile police shootings in Ferguson, Baltimore and North Charleston, police and community leaders in the midstate have been working toward improving transparency and the lines of communication.

Over the last three months, the YWCA of Greater Harrisburg has gathered a team of community members and law enforcement professionals to train 300 police officers from 30 departments in 21st century policing practices.

"We have made some significant steps in the work we've been doing recently, particularly with law enforcement," says Amanda Arbour, the YWCA's Racial Justice program coordinator. "But, we certainly have a lot of work ahead of us still."

Arbour says the recent trainings covered four main areas -- including reducing racial profiling and building trust as well as understanding civil rights laws.

"There do exist tensions between law enforcement and communities of color," she says. "So, we really wanted to help equip police officers to understand where that comes from... understand some of the history and what they can do to help bridge those gaps and to build better relationships."

Swatara Township Police Chief Jason Umberger played a big role in the YWCA's "To Protect and Serve in the 21st Century" law enforcement training.    

He says he and his officers can never be too educated when it comes to dealing with their community.

"Our area is changing demographically and we need to be cognizant of that and we need to adjust our policing practices to meet those changing times," the chief says.

As part of the effort to improve the dialogue between police and the public, he's launched several programs, such as the establishment of an 11-member Police Citizen Advisory Council.

"One of the things that I took away from our first meeting with the citizen advisory council was that citizens are just not aware of all the good things that we are doing in the community," he says. "They were shocked to find out all the different initiatives."

"I have now a direct link to ll people who would pick up the phone and say, 'Chief Umberger, I'm hearing in' -- for instance -- the Buhtanese community or the Asian community -- that there's tensions here or that there's a problem here," he adds.

Umberger has also implemented "Operation School Guardian," which is a mandatory foot patrol through each of the 10 schools in his department's coverage area to encourage positive interactions with young people.  

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