Harrisburg’s city government is adding 18 new jobs to its police department in 2021, 16 of which are meant for civilians.
Mayor Eric Papenfuse proposed a new community policing division to increase cooperation with residents. He billed the changes as a strategy to heed nationwide calls for criminal justice reform while improving the department amid a spike in shootings.
The budget adds positions for two captains and two co-responders, who accompany police on some calls with a focus on mental health and crisis intervention. It also adds staff to manage record-keeping, equipment, and a sub-station in the Allison Hill neighborhood.
Papenfuse wanted to hire 12 community service aides to help with administrative work and foster cooperation with the community.
Public comments overwhelmingly criticized the police budget. Opponents like Alex Domingos said the city should prioritize other services and the police department should provide more data on arrests and complaints before getting more money.
“The strategy of trying to use staffing to try to increase trust with the community is very questionable,” he said. “From where I sit, if you want to increase that trust, I think that calls for radical transparency and accountability.”
Other critics said it is unclear if these employees’ responsibilities will be to do public relations, paperwork, or something else.
Councilmember Shamaine Daniels said, from a legal perspective, if they will be working with the public, their responsibilities need to be strictly defined. She questioned what community service aides’ duty would be if, for example, they encountered something illegal.
“People think that because you have good intentions, that things will just be fine, but when someone is letting a government actor in their space they’re opening themselves up to a lot of things, and some of it is good and some of it is bad,” she said.
In Lancaster, community service aides have been a part of the police department for decades, according to Public Information Officer Bill Hickey.
He said they would have an obligation to report illegal activity to an officer, who would then have discretion. There, the job involves taking photographs and fingerprints, fielding messages from other law enforcement agencies, and responding to calls like lost dogs or minor theft.
“If there’s a minor parking complaint or a found dog, if a CSA’s available and can handle that call, that keeps that officer available for a higher priority call – a domestic in progress, an alarm, a fight, a disturbance, whatever it may be,” he said.
There, the positions are less a community policing initiative than an effort to provide support staff, he said.
Harrisburg City Council approved the budget with an amendment from Public Safety Chair Ausha Green that reduced the number of community service aides to seven instead of 12 and framed it as a pilot program.
In an email read aloud during Monday’s council meeting, the mayor promised to hold a public work session to further develop the positions. He also promised to report on the amount of money that goes unused due to delays in hiring and allow the council to reallocate it to COVID-19 relief or other programs. And he said he would ensure someone in the police department is responsible for responding quickly to council requests for data.
Shortly before the vote, Councilmember Westburn Majors submitted an amendment to eliminate the existing community policing coordinator job. Blake Lynch, who is in that role, is being promoted to a new position as Director of Community Engagement. The amendment passed 3-2, with Council President Wanda Williams and Vice President Ben Allatt voting against and Daniels not present.
Majors attempted to propose another amendment redirecting the money that had been proposed for police but not approved to housing assistance, but the council struggled to find a place for it due to restrictions on certain funding pools.
Papenfuse said the decision to eliminate the community policing coordinator post would damage his community policing initiative.
“I think you’ve just jeopardized the entire transition that we’re proposing for community services,” he said.
The police bureau’s budget increased by about $1.7 million from its 2020 allocation, instead of $2 million, as proposed.
Allatt said Monday that this year’s budget discussion seemed to have received more public interest than usual. Some organizers hope to ensure the same is true next year.
Kimeka Campbell of Harrisburg Young Professionals of Color encouraged people through social media to submit comments challenging the additional funding and the city’s budget process, which she said does not allow sufficient time for the public to weigh in. She plans to continue to do so ahead of the 2022 funding debate.
“We’re going to be working with some actions that review the budget process; when it is started, why it’s such a surprise for the community at the last minute,” she said.
The council also discussed ways to provide closed captioning and sign language interpretation during public meetings and approved money for a Multilingual Community Services Coordinator in the communication bureau to make city information more accessible to people who primarily speak languages other than English.