By Rep. Steve Mentzer (R-Lititz)
Like you, I have been reading and watching the news regarding the current situation facing law enforcement. The headlines present a real and present argument for change. The question is what will this change look like and what is the current situation in local police departments?
As your voice in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, I reached out to police departments located in the 97th District to get both sides of the story.
News that does not fit the national mainstream media’s narratives does not reach most people. For example, in North Carolina on Sunday, a man stole a police officer's patrol car, throwing the officer from the vehicle and running over an EMS provider. On Thursday night, a Dallas police officer was attacked after residents called police to tell people to leave a pool area that closed at night at an apartment complex.
As one of the police chiefs told me when I was doing research for this article, “I have to tell you that it is really bad now. Officers feel as if the politicians have abandoned them too.”
The 97th District is very fortunate to have three professional, highly trained police departments – Northern Lancaster County Regional Police, Manheim Township Police, and the Lititz Borough Police are all accredited agencies. In fact, the 97th District stands alone in Lancaster County for service entirely by accredited police departments.
All police in Pennsylvania must be trained and meet the standards of the Municipal Police Officers’ Education & Training Commission (MPOTEC), consisting of 20 members appointed by the governor. MOPTEC was created in 1974 to establish uniform certification and training standards for Municipal Police Officers in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Accreditation is an optional step above and beyond state mandated MPOTEC standards. The Pennsylvania Law Enforcement Accreditation Program was instituted in July 2001. Since then, over 300 agencies have enrolled and 120 agencies currently have attained accredited status.
As Northern Lancaster County Regional Chief of Police David Steffen noted, “an entire legislative district covered in its entirety by accredited agencies is really the exception as opposed to the rule”
The 97th District was also the first suburban area to be covered by a police agency utilizing body worn cameras (BWC) for transparency and accountability. The Northern Lancaster County Regional Police Department began the use of BWC in the fall of 2019. This was made possible in part by the awarding of a PCCD grant of which I supported.
Pennsylvania has one of the largest number of local law enforcement agencies in the nation. The generally accepted number is over 1,100 agencies of varying sizes and demographics. This large number of agencies has advantages and disadvantages in delivery of law enforcement services. As incomprehensible as it may seem, there are law enforcement agencies in the Commonwealth operating without any written policy or existing with outdated or inadequate policy as the basis for decision making. This scenario is not only short sighted, it serves as the foundation for uncontrolled risk and resultant liability.
This is one reason the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association began the Accreditation program – it is a progressive and time-proven way of helping institutions evaluate and improve overall performance. The process culminates with a decision by an authoritative body that the institution is worthy of accreditation. Its uniqueness and relevance to Pennsylvania law enforcement is demonstrated by over 133 standards and 200 bullet points (sub-standards) specific to legislated legal mandates.
These mandates govern a wide array of standards for police departments and law enforcement agencies including key requirements for the:
• Organization and Management Role
• Law Enforcement Functions
• Staff Support Responsibilities
• Legal Statutory Mandates
These standards include requirements for policy development and training on use of force, pursuit, evidence and property management, domestic violence and a multitude of issues that will have policy impact upon an agency. Consequently, accreditation affords the law enforcement agency the opportunity to share innovative ideas, as well as, traditional methods with other departments.
Lititz Borough Police Chief Kerry Nye says his department will soon have officers wearing body cameras and is working on in-car cameras as well. Nye says these systems serve to protect both their officers and anyone in custody.
“We updated our in-car cameras in 2018 and all officers will start wearing body cameras on July 1,” Nye said. “This has been a multi-year effort to help spread out the funding for the overall project. Our first in-car system was started in 2010.”
Lititz Borough Police also has a very active social media presence through its CRIMEWATCH/FACEBOOK/TWITTER platforms, and fully supports ensuring only qualified candidates are considered for employment.
“We also just started a feature through our CRIMEWATCH page that residents can submit non-emergency issues through email, and we will respond accordingly,” Nye said. “As a chief, I would encourage the state government to pass legislation to have a data base kept by the MPOETC of current or past officers that had excessive use of force complaints made against them. When hiring new officers, it would make it much quicker to check that data base first. Also, MPOETC has the final say if an officer can be hired and certified.”
High expectations and defined outcomes are inherently part of the Accreditation program. It supplies law enforcement agencies a method to coordinate and monitor progress of their organization, and helps reach the goal of crime reduction, improved operations, and enhanced service to citizens. Accreditation demands timely review of policy, procedure, training, and actual provision of proofs of agency compliance, with a team of outside independent third-party evaluators. This is completed annually after awarding of accredited status, and loss of accredited status by an agency for failure to meet the defined standards is not rare.
Citizens win because their law enforcement agency has taken the initiative to comply with a set of objective, peer-developed standards. Standards compliance creates an agency that is more open and responsive to citizen input. Citizens appreciate representatives from the “outside” looking at their respective agency and they view transparency and accountability as positives.
“One of our biggest issues is the perception that the entire public has abandoned us,” one of the chiefs I spoke with said. “I have had businesses donate money who don’t want to be identified for fear of retribution, and people who whisper their support to me because they don’t want to be overheard.”
Officers are also much more than law enforcement, said Manheim Township Police Chief Thomas Rudzinski. But much of the time these efforts go unnoticed by the media.
“We are often the first on the scene of medical and fire calls, and there are many examples of officers who save lives by starting CPR or rescuing people from fires,” Rudzinski said. “And during the stay-at-home order, we participated in several drive-by birthday parties for children and senior citizens – lights flashing and sirens blaring. Most of our officers donate a part of every paycheck to a fund which we then use to help people in need”.
In addition, Rudzinski said:
• “Manheim Township officers have been known to buy a meal for homeless people they encounter.
• “The department’s crises awareness and mental health training teach us to help people make better decisions. We are frequently called upon to be counselors to those in need,”
• “We help solve problems when other people don’t want to do it themselves.
• “We assist when your car breaks down and stay with you until that assistance arrives.”
After speaking with our chiefs, I believe the police departments in the 97th District are responsive, progressive, professional, and dedicated in applying solutions to the needs of the citizens they serve. Not everything we see on the news is a universal truth – the police are here to serve and protect all of us and do so faithfully. They have accepted this mission and need our continued support while facing the challenges of both today and tomorrow.