York County police and clergy build trust through two years of dialogue

Rebecca Klar
York Dispatch

In 2016, York County clergy, largely made up of leaders of the black community, and York County police chiefs met in the auditorium of Logos Academy to discuss growing racial tension and the fears black youth had of law enforcement. 

The individuals came with what they'd soon learn to be implicit biases of each other, knowing nothing about their counterparts other than their profession and the color of their skin.

Nearly two years later, as the group came together in that same room Thursday, Nov. 1, they told a packed audience about a relationship of trust they built — and said they needed to pass that down to the rest of the community. 

On Thursday, three police chiefs and seven clergy members spoke, though more participated in the monthly conversations.

The group plans to continue this conversation, inviting the community in with more informal events going forward, said Logos Academy CEO the Rev. Aaron Anderson.

Clergy members joined York County police chiefs at an event at Logos Academy on Thursday, Nov. 1, to discuss a relationship they've built over the last two years through private group discussions. (Photo by Rebecca Klar)

"We did not want this to happen in York," said the Rev. Bill Kerney, pastor of Covenant Family Ministries and president of the Black Ministers' Association. "The flavor of the attitude of some of our young people today was at a boiling point; they were ready to revolt ... and they're angry." 

In prayer, Kerney said God "laid upon our heart to begin a dialogue."

The goal was to be proactive rather than reactive in the wake of fatal shootings of African-Americans by police and corresponding protests across the nation. 

With the help of Anderson, a group of clergy members and police chiefs were assembled to privately begin a dialogue. 

Showing up, bringing the group together, was just the first step — and having those monthly conversations was not always easy. 

Finding common ground: The Rev. Sharon Lincoln, pastor at Well Worship Center, said she that as a black woman with a bad experience with police in her past, she didn't believe the police had her best interests at heart. 

"If I were in trouble, they'd be the last person I called," Lincoln said. 

With that bias and reservation, she came to the first meeting — and the next, and the next, she said. 

"One of the first things that happened in this meeting is that I found we had a common goal, and that goal was we all have a job to do, and we all want to do it well," Lincoln said. "And we all want to go home at the end of the day with our loved ones, and that began to change the way I viewed the police. It humanized them for me." 

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The group found they actually had a lot in common, said Springettsbury Township Police Chief Dan Stump. 

They all like to talk — a lot. They are all available to the community 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They nearly all, jokingly, agreed that Northern York County Regional Police gives out too many speeding tickets. 

And perhaps, most importantly, they are all passionate about helping people in the York community, Stump said. 

Implementing change: Building a relationship of trust was just the first step, said York City Police Chief Troy Bankert. 

"It's not good unless you do something about it," he said, quoting a sentiment Lincoln often shares with the group. 

The group has been productive, because there's no finger-pointing, Stump said. 

Each conversation about how a situation may have been mishandled "automatically goes toward, 'how can we help you fix it,'" Bankert said. 

Once that respect was established, it was the members' responsibility to use their influence to help that trust trickle down to the community, said Northern Regional Police Chief Mark Bentzel. 

Practical improvements have already been made, the chiefs said. 

Stump said his officers are now given procedural justice training, which teaches officers to take the time to listen when responding to calls and explain why they are there. 

"Treating people as people is what it comes down to," Bentzel said. 

Speakers also said they are trying to meet with school superintendents to implement a curriculum in early grades to teach the importance of law enforcement, to help create a culture of respect and understanding, rather than fear. 

Different perspectives: The culture of fear and reservation, the group found, came from a difference in perspective. 

The Rev. Bob Riedy, a white pastor at the suburban Church of the Open Door, said at first he was hesitant to participate in the talks when Anderson reached out to him. 

Riedy wasn't sure where he fit into the conversation as an outsider to the city. But this conversation was not about the city, but the county and community as a whole, Anderson assured him. 

Riedy has now found this to be one of his most profound experiences in his 36 years of ministry, he said. 

"An amazing thing was granted to us — understanding," Riedy said. 

During one conversation, Riedy recalled, the Rev. Ramona Kinard, pastor of Church of the Living God, said she didn't feel safe driving in the country at night. 

"My first thought was that's weird, you're much safer out in the country than you are in the city," Riedy said. 

Then it hit him, Riedy said. 

He realized he faced the same apprehensions when he drove in certain parts of the city at night, he said. 

Each of their fears came through their own backgrounds, skin colors and life experiences, he said. 

"It has opened the eyes of this pastor who thought his eyes were already opened," Riedy said. "It helped me see that life experiences of our brothers and sisters shaped who they were and what they were. Concerns that they had were not imagined, not exaggerated, and that in the end we were not all that different." 

Kinard said she doesn't only fear for herself but also for her four African-American sons.

Daily, she's frantic to know where they are going and when they are returning; frantic to remind them to "take the hoodie off," she said. 

This dialogue has helped ease some of her fear, she said. 

"You didn't even know the fire was kindling, but we were able to put it out," Kinard said. "I tell you, it is worth doing. It is worth having these conversations."