Spring Grove-area community members praise charged officer
People from the Spring Grove-area community who are familiar with the police work of Southwestern Regional Police Officer Stu Harrison say he is a conscientious, level-headed cop who cares deeply about his community and who is considered a mentor by younger officers.
Becky Downing — who served as chief York County detective for several years after retiring from the York City Police as a lieutenant — told The York Dispatch she watched Harrison excel as an officer, initially in York City.
Harrison, 56, is being charged with simple assault for shooting Ryan Shane Smith Jr. in the parking lot of Santander Bank in Spring Grove on May 30 as Smith struggled with him. Smith was handcuffed at the time.
Harrison told state police investigators he meant to tase Smith in the thigh, but accidentally pulled his firearm from his utility belt instead of his Taser, according to charging documents. He had been on paid administrative leave since the shooting, but on Friday his status was changed to unpaid leave.
Downing — who now lives in Florida but returns to the area annually to teach courses on police ethics, community policing and supervisory law enforcement for HACC and Penn State — said she hates that Harrison's career could end this way.
"Policing, especially during arrest procedures, requires 100 percent focus and concentration, and when there is the slightest lapse or distraction, for even a second, terrible things can happen," she said. "There's no way in my opinion that Stu Harrison ever possessed intent to cause the prisoner any harm — he just sought compliance."
Training officer: Harrison, whose wife, Jennifer Harrison, also was a city police officer, joined the York department after being deployed out of state with the U.S. Marine Corps. Downing called him a model cadet who quickly transformed into "a very squared-away officer."
Downing said Stu Harrison was hired by Southwestern Regional Police in 2003 amid threats of layoffs at York City Police in the early 2000s.
"I was thrilled that this guy was going to now patrol my own personal residence in North Codorus Township and (knew) his presence would definitely complement the community interactions in our growing rural area," she said. "I watched him come up through the ranks ... and become a training officer. He's fantastic as a trainer."
Downing said Harrison's reputation as an officer in the Southwestern Regional community is good and that he's the kind of cop who knows how to interact with residents and how to inspire trainees.
Harrison was a field-training officer and instructed fellow cops on use of firearms and Tasers, Southwestern Regional Police Chief Greg Bean said.
"Many of his trainees would tell me how he continued to mentor them years after training and how valuable his advice and input was," Downing said.
'Calm demeanor': Pastor Nate Conklin of Spring Grove Area Christian & Missionary Alliance Church said he watched Harrison work — and became Harrison's friend — through Conklin's service as Southwestern Regional's police chaplain since 2005.
"He has always been a conscientious officer. ... When he came on to a situation, he'd have a very calm demeanor," Conklin said, explaining that as police chaplain he would do ride-alongs with Harrison and other officers.
The pastor said that in his experience, Harrison's interactions with the public were friendly, caring and respectful, even to those he was ticketing or arresting.
"He never made them feel bad," Conklin said.
The pastor recalled a frightening assignment in which Harrison and an ambulance crew were called to a home where a baby had stopped breathing after slipping underwater in a tub. Harrison and the pastor arrived first.
"He got that baby breathing again," Conklin said. "Police officers just never know what they're going to get called to."
Gunnery sergeant: Bob Brunner, who owned the Sherwood Inn on North Main Street in New Salem for about 35 years before selling it in 2014, also is a former Marine. He said he calls Harrison "Gunny" because Harrison retired from the Marines as a gunnery sergeant.
"I'd take a hundred of him in a heartbeat," Brunner told The York Dispatch. "He's well respected by a lot of my customers, and by myself. He is always a fair person. ... He served his community and his country above and beyond — I can't say enough about him."
He said Harrison's knowledge, dedication, professionalism and willingness to run toward danger as others flee it are the primary reasons why the community respects him.
Brunner said he thinks it's hard to truly understand the life of police officers "until you're in those shoes and you walk that thin blue line."
Firefighter weighs in: Andrew Martin, a volunteer firefighter with several area fire companies, said he and Harrison have worked fire and crash scenes together over the years.
"I'll back his a— up any given time of the day," he said.
Asked what community members would say about Harrison if asked, Martin said that "they would say he's a good guy all the way around."
Martin described Harrison as level-headed and knowledgeable.
"That's the whole department, not just Stu," he said, though he acknowledged that "everyone has their bad days."
Martin said he has seen Harrison become angry or frustrated while on duty but still remain "well under control."
"I think that comes from his Marine training," Martin said. "He's a very sensible guy."
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.