York City mayor, activists agree on how to diversify police department

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
York City Police in the 900 block of West Poplar Street in York City, Saturday, July 15, 2017. Witnesses say a man ran into 913 Poplar Street and climbed across the roof to West Poplar Street Church of God at 915 West Poplar Street. Dawn J. Sagert photo

York City is a diverse community, but its police department historically has been overwhelmingly white and male.

Mayor Michael Helfrich and community activists agree on the need for a force that better represents the community it serves — and they agree it will take a long-term effort to make that happen.

The city police department has 109 officers, and 87.2 percent of them are white men, according to statistics provided by city spokesman Philip Given.

Yet the most recent census data show 27 percent of the city's residents are African-American and 30.9 percent are of Latin American origin — and that doesn't include those who relocated to York City after last year's Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

The census also shows 51 percent of York City's population is female.

Minority numbers improved in the most recent wave of 11 new recruits in June: one African-American, two Latinos and one woman.

More:Promotions, new cops, accolades at York City Police ceremony

However, the discrepancy between the police department's demographics and the makeup of city residents is a historical issue that's yet to be fully addressed, said York NAACP President Sandra Thompson.

Local attorney and York NAACP Chapter President Sandra Thompson speaks as hundreds gather for the March For Our Lives rally to end gun violence in York City, Saturday, March 24, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

"The police department's white majority is a struggle we've had with various administrations when it comes to communicating the importance of reflecting the community," she said. "Fixing this issue starts from the top."

Long-term process: What the "top" can do, she said, is set a goal for having the department reflect the community, and then begin the long-term process of not only recruiting diverse candidates but also building community-police relations.

Thompson said giving the youth a good impression of police officers is one of the most important steps to help diversify the department in the future.

"What happens is when the police get a reputation, whether justified or not, young black and brown kids don't see themselves as police," she said. "They don't grow up with the goal of becoming a police officer. We have to change that narrative, as it could help over time."

Not only that, but oftentimes officers aren't from the community or don't live in the community, Thompson added, which feeds miscommunication and misunderstanding between the force and residents.

Community relations: Elizabeth Alex, regional director of CASA, an immigrant advocacy organization, agreed that building community-police relations is the most important step to diversifying the department in the future.

Elizabeth Alex, regional director for CASA, speaks to a group of immigrants and advocates as they protest in front of the  Senator Scott Wagner's office to denounce his hard line position against immigrants, Monday, May 1, 2017. John A. Pavoncello photo

"The people of any jurisdiction are going to be best served by a police force that represents them," Alex said. "Demographics are an important piece of the issue. I support aiming to hire minority recruits, but we also need to improve police-community relations."

Improving relationships with the community includes training officers on how to properly interact with minorities, she said.

"We can't solve the issue with one round of minority recruitment and putting token officers in place," Alex said. "We need police that are trained both in language and cultural competency, because that's what's going to build the trust to keep us safe now. If we don't trust the police, none of us are any safer, and things won't get better."

Like Thompson, Alex said that if community-police relations improve, "boys and girls of color will be more likely to take the path of being a police officer," helping solve the issue naturally in the long run.

Strategies: Minority residents' concerns haven't gone unheard, Helfrich said.

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich speaks as organizers hold a press conference to introduce 10,000 Acts of Kindness, a year-long collaborative effort to spread kindness and goodwill, outside of the York County Administrative Center in York City, Friday, June 29, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

"Of course there's a diversity issue in the department," he said. "We're trying to find the best ways to get over these hurdles."

Echoing what Alex and Thompson suggested, the mayor said these strategies include having police attend more community events, walking the neighborhoods more often and prioritizing diverse candidates who have lived in or know the city well.

Such initiatives are already in the works.

On Tuesday, Aug. 7, the city police held multiple block parties throughout the city as part of National Night Out, which is meant to strengthen relations between law-enforcement officers and the residents they serve.

Earlier this year, the York City School District announced it's launching a public safety and emergency services program for high school students that will encompass all public safety disciplines.

More:York City schools to certify teens for public safety jobs in intensive 3-year program

The program, offered at William Penn Senior High School and facilitated by York City School Police, includes fire, EMS, policing, corrections, emergency services, emergency management, probation, corrections and civil law.

Additionally, the city is working on implementing "neighborhood captains," Helfrich said. Those will be officers able to familiarize themselves with certain neighborhoods "to get to know the community as best as possible."

More:York City Police to host its first Coffee with a Cop event

More:National Night Out events planned for Tuesday

All of these efforts, the mayor said, are striving to reach one common goal.

"When the population of people of color is over 50 percent of the city, we want the department and all of city government to reflect the rainbow of race and culture the city has," he said.