York City's police chief says officers feel under attack

Liz Evans Scolforo

York City Police Chief Wes Kahley correctly predicted Friday evening's rally to protest police shootings would be a peaceful gathering of concerned citizens.

In this file photo, York City Police Chief Wes Kahley comments during the mayor's news conference on the spike in violent crime in York City, Monday, Jan. 11, 2016. (John A. Pavoncello - The York Dispatch)

But while he supports their right to protest, he doesn't share their beliefs.

Kahley said people who believe his officers unfairly target black people — or anyone, for that matter — are wrong.

"We're constantly battling against the perception that we have a racist and a brutal police department that violates people's rights," he said.

Kahley said the frustration he feels when people accuse his officers of being racist or unprofessional is akin to the frustration he feels when he hears suburbanites say they're afraid to come to York City because they'll be shot or robbed.

"It's frustrating when you know the truth and the facts of what's happening, and you can't change people's perceptions," he said. "Changing people's perceptions is very tough."

Kahley said people don't seem to recognize that police officers are human beings who make mistakes, but that those mistakes don't necessarily mean there are systemic problems within a department.

Accountability: He said he neither turns a blind eye toward police misconduct nor protects officers who don't uphold professional standards, and added that his department continually reaches out to city residents, including with various programs for youths and with the city's citizen police academy.

BLOG: New approach to policing in York City?

"I think we've built tremendous bridges with the community," he said.

The chief said he's available to meet with anyone in the community who wants to talk about ways of improving York City and the relationship between its officers and residents.

"We've always been open to that," he said. "But there's always going to be a segment of the community that doesn't want to build bridges."

Kahley said security measures were put in place for Friday's rally, which started at 6 p.m. at both Penn Park and the Cherry Lane courtyard and ended with both groups of people marching to the police station at 50 W. King St. Those safety measures were to protect both marchers and officers, he said.

York City police chief addresses neighborhood group

On Friday afternoon, the chief indicated he didn't believe the slaughter of five Dallas officers and wounding of seven others Thursday night would have any effect on Friday's rally in York City.

'Under attack': But the mass murders are certainly weighing on the minds of his officers.

"I think there's a general belief in law enforcement that we are under attack for no reason other than we wear (a badge)," he said.

Leaders of Black Lives Matter condemn violence in Dallas

Officers feel besieged by negative media reports, he said, and it's especially insulting considering they risk injury or worse every day.

"We've all accepted that doing this job is dangerous," Kahley said. "Our officers are asked to deal with the unknown constantly. Dangerous things can occur."

There's one way to overcome suspicion and distrust between citizens and their police department, according to the chief.

"The only thing we can do is continue to have dialogue — I think it will always be about dialogue," Kahley said. "There's plenty of opportunity for the community to engage us, and there's plenty of opportunity for us to engage with the community. It's a two-way street ... and we continue to hope it's fixable."

But to be effective, he said, that dialogue must be based on facts, not on misconceptions.

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.