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Task Force Releases Report on Community-Police Relations

by on July 19, 2016 12:30 PM

A task force of more than 30 people representing the Penn State campus and local community released to the public its final report and recommendations on the relationship between local law enforcement and underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.

The Task Force on Policing and Communities of Color, commissioned by Penn State and the Borough of State College in August 2015, issued five core recommendations to improve relations between law enforcement and the community. Those recommendations include:

1. Promoting greater recognition and celebration of successes as a community.

2. Increasing the recruitment and retention for employees of color in local police departments.

3. Providing consistent and ongoing education for Penn State students and employees, residents in surrounding communities and local police departments.

4. Targeting outreach and marketing to build/improve stakeholder engagement.

5. Establishing baseline parameters and developing appropriate metrics to assess improvement.

The report goes into detail on the necessity of each recommendation and steps for achieving each. Barbara Farmer, task force member and retired director of the Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, said themes emerged as the task force researched best practices and those formed the basis of the recommendations.

“We did not want to overwhelm people,” Farmer said in a release. “We wanted the report to be embraced.”

The full report can be read here.

Penn State Senior Vice President for Finance and Business David Gray, who received the report along with Borough Manager Tom Fountaine in May, said the report emphasizes the need for diversified police departments both at Penn State and in State College and surrounding communities.

"For me, at least, a key take away is both police departments have a lot to do to improve the diversity of their respective forces," Gray said. "The community needs representation on these forces with which they can identify. Until we make progress on the police officer recruitment and retention goal, it’s going to be harder to make headway against the other important goals identified by the task force.”

Of the 170 officers employed by four police departments in the State College area, there are only four officers of color -- three at Penn State and one at Patton Township. The report noted that the State College Police Department is the only local department bound by the State College Civil Service Commission testing and hiring process, which uses the Pennsylvania Civil Service Law. This results in a pool of candidates for open positions restricted to the top three candidates passing the test, and the department has no opportunity to directly recruit racially and ethnically diverse applicants.

The report also notes acts of violence across the nation have resulted in diminished trust between police and the community. Other challenges include the loss of Penn State Police Chief Tyrone Parham, "a person of color who understood the challenges and concerns of working and living in a predominantly White environment," and the pending retirement of State College Police Chief Tom King, who has been a leader in implementing community policing efforts, according to the report.

Population turnover is also cited as challenge, as the transient nature of the student population makes it difficult to establish long-term relationships.

Though the report was just released publicly on Monday, Fountaine said the university and borough have been implementing recommendations while the task force was at work.

"Throughout the process, the borough, the University and other area police departments began implementation of many of the key recommendations in the report, such as expanding marketing efforts for the borough's upcoming police testing and recruitment process, and providing diversity, de-escalation and crisis intervention training for police officers," Fountaine said. “These actions, along with our commitment to address the recommendations from this report over the long-term help improve and continue the conversation and relationships formed through this task force.”

In February, 164 police officers from Penn State, State College, Bellefonte, Ferguson Township, Spring Township and Patton Township participated in diversity and inclusion training, according to the report.

"On the Penn State campus and in the State College area, there have only been a few racially charged interactions reported or observed in the past few years, despite what we see and hear in the national scene," the report stated, citing examples of what the task force termed proactive steps to avert such steps.

One of those cited examples was Penn State President Eric Barron's participation in a Black Lives Matter demonstration in front of Old Main on the University Park campus in 2014. During the demonstration, Barron posed for a photo in which he joined demonstrators in the "hands up" gesture that became a symbol for the movement following the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. earlier that year.

Barron's participation in the gesture was welcomed by some but met with criticism by others. One state representative called for Barron to apologize or resign. However, the report notes, "While receiving criticism from some for this action, he has since been awarded The Giving Back Award from INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine for his leadership." 

Other proactive steps cited by the report include local police leadership reaching out to communities of color to ask what needed to be done to prevent conflicts from arising; a police meet-and-greet sponsored by the university's Paul Robeson Cultural Center; other community events, such as LION Walk ,intended to better acquaint law enforcement and student residents; and the Community and Campus in Unity group led by King and local pastor Harold Mackenzie and formed to promote a respectful multi-cultural community.

"However, the Task Force is aware that the campus and surrounding communities are not immune from what appear to some to be racially charged incidents between white police and people of color." the report stated.

The report cites a February 2015 incident in which police used a Taser on a female African-Americn student and pepper spray was used to manage a crowd that had formed at the downtown McDonald's in the aftermath of a fight. The mostly African-American witnesses quickly became protestors, the report said, but "Swift interventions (within 24 hours) by the University and community helped to bring calm to the situation." All parties involved were held accountable, according to the report.

“We’ve got good working relationships in place and we have a good foundation,” said task force chair Lydia Abdullah, who added that the next step will be to form implementation teams to move forward on all of the reports recommendations.

Gray said the university is prepared "to make the necessary investments."

“At the moment, we are in a better place than a lot of other communities in the U.S. because we started the conversation earlier. However, we cannot rest on our laurels,” Gray said. “Like other communities, we know we’re just a single incident away from finding ourselves in a very difficult position. Embracing and implementing the task force’s recommendations will help to strengthen our community and its relationships with law enforcement.”

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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