The town-and-gown Task Force on Policing and Communities of Color released a new report this week reviewing progress made in the last five years and making recommendations to further improve police-community relations in Centre County.
When it was originally formed in 2015, the task force focused on the State College Police Department and Penn State University Police and Public Safety. Reconvened last fall, the task force this time also surveyed each of Centre County’s other police forces — Bellefonte Borough and Ferguson, Patton and Spring townships.
Since September 2020, the reconvened task force comprised of 31 university faculty, staff and administrators and community leaders assessed data, procedures and practices from local police departments that could contribute to bias, studied progress made since the 2016 report, identified areas where progress is needed and made new recommendations for improving relationships among law enforcement and minority groups.
“The borough and the State College Police Department look forward to working with Penn State, other police departments and our communities of color in Centre County to continue implementing a wide range of strategies to improve the relationship with the underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities within the State College community,” State College Borough Manager Tom Fountaine said in a statement. “We are fortunate to have passionate staff, Penn State faculty, staff and students and community members engaged to help us accomplish this goal.”
While looking back at the 2016 report, the new task force also began its work amid calls for police reform both locally following the 2019 fatal police shooting of Osaze Osagie in State College and nationally after the unrest that followed the killings of multiple Black men and women by law enforcement.
“The task force is aiming to push progress and action,” Emil Cunningham, task force chair and director for the office of diversity and inclusion for Penn State Finance and Business, said in a statement. “The time has come for greater action and transparency with our communities. It is our duty, as neighbors, coworkers and community members to do the right thing. We must work toward more equitable practices.”
The task force’s recommendations fell into five overarching categories.
• The need for external consultants to examine data and practices more thoroughly.
While the task force “was able to engage in tremendous amounts of discovery related to various topics,” it recommended that consultants are needed for in-depth, systemic analysis of several issues.
Across all local departments, data showed “that Blacks/African Americans were disproportionately, by population size, more likely to be arrested and be subjected to use of force.” An analysis would “determine whether
Blacks/African Americans or other minoritized racial/ethnic groups are being unfairly treated by local policing agencies,” examining whether implicit bias plays a role and what other factors might be contributing to the racial disparities.
A recommended analysis also would look at case processing “to determine whether minoritized racial/ethnic
groups experience a cumulative disadvantage as they are processed through the system,” and addressing whether race, ethnicity or gender matter in processing of cases or final dispositions.
The report also recommends consultants assess in-depth how minority and non-U.S. citizen populations perceive local police. An analysis also would examine working relationship between policing agencies at large events with non-white attendees and whether “any implicit bias exists while working at such events.”
• Diversify police departments
Also a recommendation of the 2016 report, the task force wrote that local police departments should explore new ways to diversify their workforces. At the time of the 2021 report’s writing departments not including University Police had 118 officers, five of whom identified as a minority — two Hispanic, two Asian and one Native American.
Penn State did not provide the task force with specific numbers about police at University Park, but at all campuses has 146 sworn officers with 17 identifying as racial/ethnic minorities — 10 Hispanic, four Black, two Asian and one of two or more races.
“While we acknowledge that an increase in the number of police officers of color does not necessarily translate into a more inclusive police department, representation matters,” the task force wrote. “Increasing the hiring of employees of color who have face-to-face interactions with the community, may serve to improve community relations, promote a diversity-friendly culture within a department, and possibly increase the attraction and retention of employees from minoritized racial groups.”
The task force recommends considering the use of cluster hires across agencies, i.e., a collaborative regional hiring effort. It also suggests focused recruiting efforts from diverse populations, hiring a shared regional equity officer and establishing a mentoring program, which could not be designed specifically for minority communities but could assist in building a stronger pool of diverse candidates.
State College recently made changes to its police officer testing requirements to increase the overall number and diversity of qualified candidates who are eligible for testing and appointment. The borough also is exploring whether it can move away from the civil service examination for police officer hiring and to a different form of testing that could offer the borough more flexibility in selecting candidates.
• Data collection and reporting consistency
Data consistency across agencies was a problem identified by several police chiefs, according to the report.
“That is, data is often difficult to collect and typically inconsistent with the information other agencies provide,” the task force wrote. “One such example is the varied metrics used to capture use of force data.”
The task force recommends agencies work together to define a standard information set, analyzing data on a quarterly and annual basis and partnering with Penn State’s Office of Planning, Assessment and Institutional Research for assistance with data analysis.
Centrice Martin, Ferguson Township assistant manager, noted in a release that Centre Region police departments in have implemented a shared Police Records Management System, which supports a common database and allows for data collection, tracking and reporting to become standardized across the region.
“Community members within the local State College borough as well as throughout the country are increasingly concerned with the level of police involvement in mental health calls,” the report states. “To address these concerns, this task force considered various strategies that would provide police officers with the training they need and community members with the assurances they need to remain safe.”
All local departments should consider a specialized officer sector, the task force recommends, for the categories of mental health crisis, substance abuse crisis, calls involving juveniles, noise complaints, crisis negotiators and domestic violence/assault.
“Select officers would be required to engage in specialized training in these various areas and would be designated as first responders when crises under their jurisdiction arise,” the task force wrote. “A similar model currently exists within several of the local agencies, but a more unified approach to this is recommended.”
All police officers should receive continuing training in de-escalation and on how to respond to individuals with mental and developmental disabilities, as well as other marginalized populations, according to the report. But the task force also suggests creation of a countywide crisis intervention team.
• Expanded community engagement
Reduced funding to community-focused agencies that address the root causes of crime has been a concern among communities across the country. While the task force doesn’t have the capacity to address the need for financial resources for those agencies, it does recommend “elevat[ing] their presence and benefit to our community.”
Local departments should consider assigning annual service hours for their officers to support local nonprofits, according to the report. While officers can choose which nonprofits, the task force encourages that they be agencies with a focus on helping people in the community, such as homeless shelters, food pantries and juvenile education centers.
“Such an effort would not only indirectly work towards bettering the resource crisis that these organizations face, but it would also improve community trust and directly provide officers the opportunity to engage with the local community in a manner substantially different from their daily law enforcement work,” the task force wrote.
A final recommendation is that the task force be continued on a more permanent — and possibly condensed — basis “to serve as a support and monitoring structure for both the community and the local policing agencies.”
Cunningham said the task force is currently working on establishing membership for its next iteration.
PROGRESS SINCE 2016
The current task force found that University Police and State College Police have since 2016 “engaged in various strategies to improve their relationships with communities of color.” While the other Centre County departments were not part of that report, several have undertaken efforts to do the same.
Among those initiatives, they have:
– Extended their networking efforts and collaborations with faith-based organizations, student organizations, businesses and civic groups, and have established key contacts for participation and visibility in community activities and monthly meetings.
– Increased employee recruitment efforts through outreach to communities with growing minority populations, job fairs, community-based organizations, colleges and universities and established networks.
– Engaged in trainings related to diversity, implicit bias, immigration and mental health and intellectual disability, as well as providing training opportunities for community members.
– Participated in outreach activities such as Campus Community Unity meetings, Special Olympics, Junior Police Academy for high school students and bike patrols. They have also made many of their policies, procedures and
reports publicly available online and have partnered with Penn State organizations for joint presentations to the
community on improvements to policies and procedures.
– Implemented community policing unit programs and created (at University Police) an Accountability and Transparency Initiative.
Penn State President Eric Barron, who requested that the task force be reconvened last year, said he is grateful for the work of its members in reviewing what has been done and what needs to be accomplished.
“I am incredibly thankful for the work of this task force because as an institution of higher education, it is our duty to drive change while addressing issues of racism, bias, ignorance and intolerance,” said Barron. “Penn State is committed to developing key recommendations as we look to foster collaborative working relationships with surrounding police departments, address immediate issues and provide long-term solutions.”