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Positive relations between youth, police encouraged at New Kensington forum

posted Nov 18, 2016, 9:54 PM by Joseph Gray


                                                                                
    
Community policing was a catchphrase used frequently Thursday during a New Kensington forum on how to prevent racial strife and improve relations with police.

“We need to get in touch with our youth at a young age and stay involved,” said New Kensington police Chief Jim Klein. “We want the first interaction with the youth (and police) to be positive.”

Klein was joined by police chiefs from Arnold, Harrison, Leechburg, Lower Burrell and Vandergrift, plus state police Lt. Chris Yanoff, for the discussion hosted by the Allegheny-Kiski Valley NAACP and Westmoreland County Community College. Also present were elected officials from Allegheny Township, Lower Burrell, Leechburg, New Kensington and Vandergrift.

All of the officers voiced support for more positive interaction between police and the community.

Vandergrift Chief Joseph Cap­orali spoke of his officers going into the businesses to talk to owners and customers and stopping to play ball with children while on patrol.

Lower Burrell Chief Tim Weitzel lauded the school resource officer and Drug Abuse Resistance Education programs, plus the police academy for high school students, that give Burrell students regular interaction with police.

Klein also spoke of his school resource officer at Valley Junior-Senior High School, and Mayor Tom Guzzo said he's creating community engagement teams to gather regular feedback. Klein and Arnold Chief Eric Doutt are working to resume a D.A.R.E. program.

Doutt said his department just began a “Coffee With Cops” program in Arnold's high-rise apartments and he plans to bring the initiative to other city neighborhoods.

Yanoff, the new commander at the state police station in Kittanning, demonstrated his approach to interacting with the community: As he spoke, he shook hands with each of the 40-some audience members, even pausing at times to ask the teenagers about their career plans and encourage them to consider going into law enforcement.

“I want to make it personal,” Yanoff said. He encouraged residents to talk to police, even flag down them down when driving past: “We don't bite.”

Residents' suggestions

Andre Carter, a Vandergrift resident and New Kensington business owner, suggested police officers stop at ball games to cheer on kids or volunteer at other events so youths see them as “regular people.”

Ellyse Williams of Arnold, one of three New Kensington-Arnold School Board members present along with Doutt and Liney Glenn, questioned whether police could resume bicycle or walking patrols because there is less opportunity for interaction when they're patrolling in cars.

The Arnold and New Kensington chiefs indicated their reduced staffs mean officers spend most of their shifts responding to incidents and they don't have the manpower or time for many walking shifts.

Budget constraints also were cited as the main reason the departments don't have dash or body cameras, rather than fear of being filmed doing something inappropriate.

Harrison Chief Mike Klein said he believes state laws are changing that clarify when and how police can film their interactions, which makes him more receptive to them.

Weitzel and Leechburg Chief Mike Diebold said they've had experiences in which car-mounted cameras still haven't given a full picture of an incident due to the position of the officer or suspect during an arrest. They also noted there are issues about the cost and process of storing the data and who can access it.

New Kensington Councilman John Regoli said he supports body cameras because they can be used as a defense against spectator videos that may not show the full story or suspects' claims of police brutality.

Keeping police stops routine

Phillip Ayers, a New Kensington native and judge for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission who moderated the forum, said police can help to improve relations by being professional and personable when pulling over cars or questioning people, especially if the issue is a minor traffic violation.

The chiefs agreed, but noted they have to approach every vehicle cautiously until they size up the situation and know whether someone inside is a risk to an officer's safety.

The chiefs also noted respect is a two-way street: citizens' attitudes toward police can unnecessarily escalate a minor traffic stop.

Doran Booker of New Kensington, who has five children, said she recently talked to her 18-year-old twin boys about how to react when approached by police because she fears what could happen if they “mouth off” or make sudden moves.

She said she regretted that she had to have that discussion: “They're good boys. I don't want them to feel like they can't talk to police.”

Although the panel of police officers was all white and the audience was predominantly black, the event was congenial and respectful.

“This is an excellent beginning,” Ayers said. “We will be in touch with continuing this process.”

Liz Hayes is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at lhayes@tribweb.com or 724-226-4680.

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