York City Chief: Sitting down with the community

Liz Evans Scolforo
  • An Aug. 4 block party outside the city police station reminded officers that the bulk of the community is made up of good people, Kahley said.

In the wake of a protest march in York City that ended at police headquarters, residents and city officials are doing what needs to be done, Police Chief Wes Kahley said — communicating.

Hundreds of people protesting the shooting deaths of black men by police in Louisiana, Minnesota and elsewhere chanted "no justice, no peace" at the July 9 march as Kahley watched from the second floor of the city police station.

"I was shocked at some of the people I saw," he said, including some protesters who have Kahley's cellphone number.

The chief, who met with The York Dispatch's crime team, city reporter and editorial board at the newspaper's office on Wednesday, said he couldn't understand why some of those people were protesting York City Police. For their part, several protesters said they weren't targeting York's police force, that they were reacting locally to a national problem.

York City Police Lt. Troy Bankert speaks with the Editorial Board at the York Dispatch in West Manchester Township, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The chief said he decided not to try to address the burgeoning, chanting crowd that night because it's hard to have a meaningful conversation with a large group of people.

"I personally didn't feel it was the right time," he said.

More conversations: But since then, he and others in the department have been inviting people to sit down and talk, Kahley said.

"There are a lot more conversations with people we weren't talking to before," he said.

The idea of a unity block party came up just days after the protest, while police were speaking with York City Councilwoman Sandie Walker and community activist Jamiel Alexander, according to the chief.

That block party, held Aug. 4 in front of the York City Police station and themed "unity for our community," was a good thing for officers as well as citizens because it reminded officers that the bulk of the community is made up of good people, Kahley said.

After seeing so much crime day after day, "You can start to see your environment as that," the chief said, so a bit of humanity-restoring can be good for officers' souls.

Kahley said he doesn't believe city officers unfairly target the black community.

"I think our officers go out of their way, understanding the past, to be fair," he said, referencing the racial tensions that led up to York City's violent race riots in the 1960s.

York City Police Chief Wes Kahley and Lt. Troy Bankert meet with the Editorial Board at the York Dispatch in West Manchester Township, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Crime and poverty: But he acknowledged that poor communities tend to be plagued with more crime than is found in the suburbs.

"Crime's not a racial thing," Kahley said. "It centers around poverty."

And the vast majority of York City's gun violence is gang-related, at least tangentially, according to Lt. Troy Bankert, who supervises the city detective bureau. That doesn't mean the violence is part of a war, he noted; the link could be as loose as a gang member shooting someone during an argument.

The chief has said that  sometimes the reasons behind the gun violence are simply ridiculous.

"One time I saw someone killed over a granola bar being bitten," he said.

Asked what it will take to stop the gun violence in York City, Kahley said that's a "constant conversation" in his department.

"If I had an answer, it would have happened," he said. "We are constantly trying to come up with new and innovative ways to ... (fight) violence in the community."

He acknowledged that York City's crime numbers should be lower, based on the city's size.

CeaseFire, body cams: Still, violent and serious crimes in York City are at a 30-year low, according to Kahley, and the city is always looking for initiatives to chip away at the numbers further.

That includes the implementation of CeaseFire York, a three-year "group violence intervention" program designed to reduce gang and youth violence.

The program has been successful in other cities and provides the means for gang members to get out of that lifestyle — in part by promising tough consequences if they don't take it, York City Mayor Kim Bracey recently said.

The city police department's body-camera program is going well, and about 90 percent of city officers are now equipped with them, Kahley said Wednesday.

"It's just another tool in the toolbox," he said — not a solution in and of itself, but part of it.

"We know we're being progressive," Kahley said.

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