“A year ago, following the death of George Floyd and the social unrest that broke out across the country, Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace committed to making changes in the police department to improve racial equity, diversity and inclusion,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Dan Nephin wrote for a front-page story in Monday’s edition. On that anniversary, the mayor — who is running this year for a second term — spoke with Nephin about the progress toward those reforms.
Progress rarely comes as quickly as we would like.
But we are encouraged by the actions that Mayor Sorace’s administration has taken in the past year, especially given the institutional hurdles, one big curveball that might not have been expected and the reality that all of this necessary work is being tackled concurrently with navigating the uncharted waters of a pandemic.
The curveball, of course, was the negotiated retirement last October of Lancaster city police Chief Jarrad Berkihiser. Afterward, Sorace said in a statement that she had a “vision for the direction of the city’s Bureau of Police,” and it required “passion and conviction.”
It also requires an understanding of history.
We believe that policing is important in a community, but changes must be made to eradicate police brutality and racial injustice from law enforcement. For too long in the United States, people of color — especially African Americans — have been mistreated by those charged with protecting them. Much work must be done to ease the fear and distrust that understandably exists within Black communities toward law enforcement.
With Berkihiser gone, the Sorace administration had to push the search for a new police chief to the top of its list of ambitious priorities.
Still, progress has been made.
As Nephin noted, “The city hired CNA Corporation, of Arlington, Virginia, at $81,022 to review police department policies and make recommendations to bring the department in line with best law enforcement practices.”
Crucially, the review will also help the city as it seeks accreditation from the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association that would make it eligible for federal funding.
Additionally, the city is “having its civilian complaint and internal discipline processes evaluated,” Nephin reported, and it “has begun releasing information on discipline and use-of-force data.”
Other developments we find to be positive:
— Lancaster city is renewing bike patrols, which community members have explicitly been requesting. Nine officers have gone through training.
— “All uniformed officers will also undergo crisis intervention training offered by the county’s Adult Probation and Parole Services. Previously, the 40-hour training was encouraged, but not mandatory,” Nephin reported.
— A second social worker has been hired for the police department. We praised the work of these social workers in a March editorial: “The benefits of social workers within the city police department are clear. ... Law enforcement departments across the county should strongly consider adding social worker positions, too.”
Indeed, we believe police departments across the county should all look closely at Lancaster city’s reforms. The focus on fair policing practices that build trust in communities matters across all of the county, not just in the city.
Meanwhile, interim Chief John Bey has an intriguing idea that we like. He wants people from outside the department to be involved with interviewing potential new police officers. We believe this would help to improve trust between the community and law enforcement, and hope this can go from proposal to policy.
Bey is among the candidates to be the city’s new chief, and Sorace told Nephin she hopes a decision can be made by the end of this month.
We like what we’ve seen of Bey and, while we aren’t privy to the other candidates or the interview process, we think the mayor’s assessment that Bey has “done a remarkable job” and is “very aligned with the direction the department is going” should carry a lot of weight.
Bey has written a pair of thoughtful op-eds that were published in LNP | LancasterOnline in recent days. In one, he noted, “Our work requires community engagement, transparency and a primary goal of building trust and legitimacy. When the public and the police work on the same accord, we produce an enhanced quality of life and public safety for all citizens.”
That sounds like a fine philosophy to build from in leading a 21st century police department.
Police reforms must be prioritized at other levels of government, too.
Last summer, Gov. Tom Wolf signed a pair of bills that had passed the Legislature unanimously. Those laws, as described by The Associated Press, “are designed to prevent problematic officers from continuing to find employment in police departments, provide officers with more cultural sensitivity training and provide officers with more mental health screening.”
They represent a good start.
But additional reforms have been slower to move through the Republican-controlled General Assembly. WHYY’s Katie Meyer reported in April that some proposed legislation — including a statewide ban on the use of chokeholds — has stalled despite strong support. Harrisburg must move with more urgency on these measures and continue the work begun last summer.
At the federal level, a group of bipartisan negotiators, led by Sens. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., hope to agree on the details of significant police reform legislation this month, NBC News reported this week. A major sticking point revolves around whether to retain, reform or eliminate qualified immunity — protection for police officers from being sued for misconduct.
While these bipartisan negotiations are encouraging, they must lead to results. And we hope the result doesn’t involve significant watering down of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which has already passed the U.S. House.
As President Joe Biden said in his address to a joint session of Congress in late April, now is the moment “to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve.”
We must not let that moment pass.
Finally, a reminder that the responsibility for reform belongs to all of us, not just government officials and lawmakers. State Sen. Ryan Aument, a Republican from Mount Joy, focused on that aspect in an op-ed published in LNP | LancasterOnline last June:
“Pursuing legislative reforms is only one piece of the puzzle. ... We need to look within and be willing to hear opinions and feelings from those who do not share our own. When our fellow Americans repeatedly express their fear, frustration and concerns with the current state of police/community relations, we must listen with compassion and empathy.”
But not just listen. We must insist on positive change.