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Protection, peace and perception: Centre County police officers take on many roles

by on April 28, 2017 1:13 PM

Every day, hundreds of people across Centre County go to work protecting the community. They make decisions in the blink of an eye that could literally mean a person’s life or death. They play the roles of parent, companion, and therapist — sometimes all at once. And, thanks to smartphones and social media, their actions can be displayed online for the entire world to see.

But no matter what the situation, they are always police officers. It’s not always an easy job, but it is a rewarding one. Centre County’s police officers consider themselves lucky to live in a community where they have the opportunity to know the people they serve and see the impact of their work on a daily basis.

However, that does not mean things are perfect, and they see opportunities to improve the public’s understanding about the work they do.

Joining the force

The drive to become a police officer is often borne out of a desire to help people in a way that few other professions can.

Officer Adam Salyards of State College Police caught that feeling as a teenager in Blair County and carries it with him today.

“I’ve always had a sense of community duty,” he says. “I grew up in community service … I was a volunteer firefighter when I was 14 and an EMT at 16 and continued both of those activities until I became a police officer in my early 20s.”

After spending a decade as a night patrol officer, Salyards became the State College Police Department’s Community Relations and Crime Prevention Specialist last summer. He is responsible for educating the public on the work that police do and serves as a liaison to Penn State’s Office of Student Conduct and on on the committee for LION Walk, the University’s program intended to create good relations between borough residents and their student neighbors. He also represents the police department at community events and gives presentations on topics such as DUI, personal safety, and identity theft.

“The majority of our job is community service, and that’s especially true in a position like mine,” he says.

The Student Auxiliary Officer program within Penn State University Police provides an opportunity for college students to bridge the gap between volunteering in their hometowns and becoming police officers after graduation. About 100 auxiliary officers assist full-time staff with duties such as campus patrols and traffic control during large campus events.

University Police Sergeant Monica Himes and Officer Sanjay Bridges came up through the auxiliary program and credit it with inspiring them to pursue law enforcement as a full-time career.

Bridges had wanted to go to law school and was initially apprehensive about making the transition from auxiliary officers, who don’t carry guns, into a sworn police officer. He joined the force two years ago and hasn’t looked back since.

“I grew up in a crappy neighborhood and didn’t know how I would feel about carrying a gun every day,” he says.

Family connections also play a role in the decision to become a police officer. State College police officer Nicole Foley’s father was a police officer in Philadelphia, as are four of her uncles and an aunt. She knew that she wanted to follow the family’s line of work, but in a different environment.

“I love it here versus living in the city,” she says. “It’s a whole different quality of life and more community oriented here.”

Spring Township police officer Chris Snare has been an officer for three years and was drawn to the profession because of the fact that no two days are ever the same.

“It’s the same kind of work every day but it is constantly different problem-solving situations, physical exertions, and reasons to be proud at the end of the day,” he says.


State College and surrounding areas are consistently ranked among the safest places in the country, so being a police officer can’t be that difficult, right? While the Centre Region is no inner city, officers here say it does not mean they can sit back and take it easy.

One of the biggest challenges is the ongoing perception that the police are the bad guys out to put people in jail. The reality, they say, is quite the opposite.

“We’re all about protecting the rights of individuals, keeping the peace, and making sure everyone’s good to go,” Himes says.

The belief that the police are out to get someone is especially true among college students, officers say. There’s not much to be done in the moment when someone is rowdy and drunk, officers say, but in the long run they try to turn the experience into a learning opportunity.

Both State College Police and Penn State University Police have drug and alcohol awareness classes to help students who are charged with underage drinking and related charges.

Foley, who not that long ago was in college herself, can put herself in the shoes of her students when teaching Youthful Offender Program classes.

“I really enjoy talking to students on that level,” she says. “Students can ask whatever questions they want, and I’ll answer.”

On the university police side, officers try to meet with students after an incident occurs, which sometimes surprises students.

“When we deal with someone who is highly intoxicated, they’re not the nicest. But when we bring them in and talk to them about what happened, nine times out of 10 they leave thinking, ‘Oh my God, it’s not me.’ ” Himes says. “We’re not out to ruin everyone’s lives. There may be penalties, but there are also teachable moments.”

Another challenge with the college crowd in particular is social media. Anyone can film anything at any time and share it online for the entire world to see.

Spring Township police chief Michael Danneker has been a police officer since 1992. When he started, police reports were handwritten and no one had a cell phone. Now every police car is equipped with a laptop, and officers are starting to use technology such as microphones and body cameras to help document their work.

Keeping up with that technology can be a challenge, Danneker says, especially when the public tends to adopt new things before law enforcement does.

“I tell our officers that they need to be more alert and don’t do anything that would disgrace family or friends,” he says. “Everyone has access to some sort of social media or camera, and it’s not always presented accurately.”

How officers interact with social media personally can present some challenges. Unlike most of her millennial peers, Foley says she keeps a very limited profile, interacting only with family so as not to compromise any of the work that she does.

“I don’t want to be in a situation where if I arrest someone they can find me,” she says. “We also use social media for investigations. You’d be surprised what people put out there.”

Another challenge local police face is one of logistics. Centre County has enough police officers to serve its residents, but not always the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come in for Penn State football games and other events. These situations require officers from across the county to work together to ensure the safety of everyone, regardless of whether they live in the Centre Region.

“For things like Arts Fest and Penn State football, we all have to get together and help each other out. We’re not a city and don’t have the manpower to pull from,” Danneker says.


Like any job, the more difficult parts of being a police officer are countered by moments that remind officers of why they entered into this line of work in the first place. Those instances tend to be times when officers feel like they are helping someone, whether it’s actually saving a life in a medical situation or just providing a sympathetic ear for someone.

“There are times when you’re that person’s last hope,” Salyards says. “There are times they don’t want to talk to other people, but they will talk to a police officer and we’re there to listen.”

Officers also have the opportunity to connect with young adults and children through partnerships with local schools. Snare serves as a school resource officer for the Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology in Pleasant Gap. In that capacity, he’s one of two officers responsible for discipline and security at the school and also for educating students on topics from drug and alcohol abuse to computer crimes and traffic laws.

“A school resource officer helps build a positive relationship between students, police, and administration,” Snare says. “It’s about showing students that police are humans, too, and they can simply talk to us.”

Mike Lyons is the school resource officer at Bellefonte Area High School. Like Snare, he is responsible for dealing with disciplinary issues at the school. He says much of what he sees is related to the prevalence of social media and comments that quickly escalate into something more.

“If I can get them communicating face to face instead of talking through social media, I’m usually able to get those kind of issues squashed pretty quickly,” he says.

He adds that he tries to maintain a loose demeanor around the kids so they feel comfortable talking to him if needed. He’s sometimes in the position of trying to counteract a stereotype that a child may have built up about the police based on a bad encounter a parent or family member had.

He primarily works at the high school, but does visit the district’s elementary schools along with Shawn Luse, the school resource officer at Bellefonte Area Middle School.

“We even get the elementary school kids used to seeing us,” Lyons says. “They’re not afraid to come up and talk to me whenever they see me.”

He says he enjoys working in the schools because it allows him to be more proactive in a way that police officers do not typically get to be.

“There’s a lot that goes in with this other than waiting for someone to do something where they screw up and need my help,” he says. “I’ve done the street work for a long time, and it was nice to have that change”

Outside of formal relationships like that, local police also frequently speak to groups from the community, conduct station tours, and hold events to educate the public about the work they do.

In addition to the connections with the people they serve, police officers also enjoy a special type of camaraderie with each other. On the days when it’s tough to put personal problems aside to focus on work or when a weekend shift means missing a family event, officers commiserate with each other because they’ve all been there.

“They know you better than anyone else here,” Bridges says. “They know when you’re having an off day. They can be that shoulder you need so that you can be who you need to be to the community that you serve.”

The majority of cases local police handle relate to drug or alcohol use and domestic or child abuse — all situations where officers have the opportunity to intervene and change long-term behavior patterns for the better.

The same adrenaline-filled moments that make the job demanding also make it rewarding and keep law enforcement officers coming to work each day, even though it inevitably means missing out on family or other obligations as a result.

“When you’re dealing with someone in a crisis situation, you’re not worrying about who they are or how they got there. You’re just worried about saving them,” Foley says. “At the end of it, you’ve succeeded in saving someone’s life, which is the most rewarding thing.”

Moving forward

While the job is rewarding to those who put on the uniform each day, they still feel there’s work to be done in educating the community about the work they do and the tough choices that are sometimes required of them.

“A lot of people who are unhappy with law enforcement have never had contact with anyone in law enforcement,” Danneker says. “Everyone can be an armchair quarterback, but we are in situations where decisions are made in milliseconds in the dark or with sometimes little information provided.”

That transformation happens through outreach events to the general public and also by changing the way that law enforcement is talked about in the classroom.

Foley says she would like to go back to school and eventually teach criminal justice classes at the college level. Her experience was that those who were teaching courses related to police work did not have any hands-on experience in the field.

“Some of my teachers had law degrees, but no one had a police background,” she says. “People who have actually been on the ground can bring a different aspect to teaching.”

Local officers say they’ll continue to do the work of trying to change the perception some people may have of the police, especially when high-profile cases involving police shootings draw national attention.

“Some people don’t respect police and what it is that we are trying to accomplish, which is really just having a safe place to live for our families and communities,” Snare says “I’d like to see less of that [lack of respect] in the years to come, but recognize that it is an uphill battle.”





Jenna Spinelle is a freelance writer in State College. She works in Penn State’s Undergraduate Admissions Office and is an adjunct lecturer in the College of Communications.
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