Retired York City murder cop now fosters countywide collaboration
Solving homicides is a calling, according to Assistant Chief York County Detective Jeff Spence — and he should know.
The former York City detective spent two decades as a murder cop. He has solved, or helped solve, 260 homicides by his own count.
He retired from York City Police in January 2018 after 29 years of service to work for York County District Attorney Dave Sunday, as the assistant to Chief County Detective Art Smith Jr.
Sunday's interest in Spence was about more than his detective skills. He knew Spence had the ability to create an atmosphere of teamwork, and the DA said he shares the same philosophy.
"Jeff Spence is a natural-born leader," Sunday said. "His enthusiasm is contagious. I see it every day."
Smith called Spence's skills exceptional and praised his sincerity and compassion.
"He's an outstanding find for any organization," Smith said. "Compassion is what separates the very good from the best. It's something you can't teach in a classroom, and something you can't fake."
Revamped training model: Spence said one of his goals since being hired at the DA's office is to create both shared databases and teams, to strengthen partnerships with other agencies and to provide wide-ranging training workshops to every interested police officer in York County.
A few months after taking the job, Spence talked about his plan to offer free one-day training sessions on topics useful to law enforcement officers.
"I want to create more tools to put in their toolboxes," Spence said at the time.
Since then, some of those workshops have already happened. Others are still being planned, he said, including a class on elder abuse.
Up next is a training led by the four York County sheriff's deputies who are K-9 handlers, to give officers a better understanding of how police dogs work, their limitations and how to capitalize on their skills.
Free and local: So far, the DA's office has offered workshops on case law and case construction, testifying in court, tactical training, digital evidence and social-media investigations, Spence said. All classes were taught by York County law enforcement or prosecutors.
Spence said instead of police departments spending money to send officers out of town for multi-day seminars, the sessions offered by the DA's office are taught locally by local experts. And that, he said, nurtures collaboration.
Police academies teach what Spence called "the bare essentials of law enforcement," which, he said, is why ongoing training is so important.
"Police officers have one of the hardest jobs to do, including making split-second decisions that people will have months and years to analyze," Spence said. "We're here to help. That's what Dave (Sunday) wants."
He said he learned firsthand the value of a team approach by working with fellow York City detectives. And as the son of a York City officer, Spence already knew the kind of tight-knit family bonds that form among police.
Proud legacy: "These guys did everything together," Spence said, which as a boy gave him a sense of belonging and legacy. The pride he feels at being the son of the late Officer Bob Smyser is unmistakable.
"I had a lot of uncles when I was hired by York City Police," he said, adding he grew up with several cops' kids who also became York City officers.
Spence was raised in York City by his mother, Sharon Smyser Callandrelle, and Smyser, who died when Spence was in 10th grade. Spence has said knowing people in the city helped him solve street crimes about which people were reluctant to speak.
He was named York City Officer of the Year for 2008, and in 2016 he was awarded the Mayor's Medal of Distinction by then-York City Mayor Kim Bracey.
'Unique ability': "He has a unique ability to connect with crime victims and witnesses on a personal level," Bracey said at the time.
Spence sometimes became too involved with homicide victims' families, he said.
"You've got to throw your heart and soul into a murder case — you can't work it part-time. You've got to work it like it was your own family member," he said. "It's a heavy burden. But you learn, you grow. There's a balance there."
Golfing has become his outlet for such stress.
"I play golf so I don't have to go to a therapist," Spence said, adding he plays with an eclectic group of men who are like his big brothers. "It's a way for me to talk about my life."
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at email@example.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.