Reflecting the debate over police policies and actions throughout the country, participants in Lebanon Mayor Sherry Capello’s community conversation Monday night shared a wide range of perspectives.
Several of the 60-plus attendees in the two-hour virtual gathering who spoke were very complimentary toward law enforcement, saying their encounters were always professional and positive. Some were business owners in the city.
Others, however, expressed a different viewpoint. “My children have gone from being respectful of police officers to being fearful of police officers,” said a white mother about her nonwhite offspring.
What the participants did have in common, however, was a desire to bridge this gap, and they applauded the mayor for hosting this conversation as a step in the right direction.
Joining Capello on the Zoom panel were City of Lebanon police Chief Todd Breiner; police officer Enoc Ayala; employment and labor law attorney Michael Miller; attorney Tricia Springer, who specializes in Right-to-Know issues; and Holly Leahy, administrator of the county’s Mental Health/Intellectual Disabilities/Early Intervention Program.
“Police operations are a serious issue right now,” Capello said as she began her slide presentation, noting that more meetings will be held as necessary.
The information she was offering was in response to a petition, concerns and questions she received since the George Floyd protests began in June.
Capello noted the changing demographics of Lebanon, now with a 44% Hispanic population that has grown significantly in recent years.
As of 2020, the Lebanon City Police Department employs 41 officers, 26 of them on patrol, to cover more than 25,000 residents. The clearance rate for serious crime exceeds the national average, Capello said.
“I think we do a great job at solving crime in the city.”
When she broke arrests down by race (Black and white) and ethnicity (Hispanic) and compared them to percentage of the population, Capello said the data showed the numbers weren’t inordinately high for any one group.
She also spoke about community policing and the many ways the city and department reinforce that. One way is Park, Walk, and Talk, where officers stop in a neighborhood, walk the streets and engage with residents.
Another is neighborhood watch groups, Capello said. The department sponsored a T-ball league for kids as well.
Some of this, such as school visits, have been put on hold because of COVID-19. But “we make every effort to make ourselves visible and approachable,” Breiner said.
As far as hiring new officers, “we want our department to be more diversified,” Capello said.
To expand recruitment, Lebanon advertises in National Minority Update and uses PoliceApp, she said.
As for training, sensitivity (bias) training was mandated for the entire force last year, she said, and over next 2.5 months every officer will receive mental health training through Crisis Intervention.
The department also just learned that its grant application to purchase body cameras was approved, Capello said. Cameras increase accountability and improve community relations, she said.
Leahy, of the Mental Health/Intellectual Disabilities/Early Intervention Program, then talked about the Lebanon County Criminal Advisory Board as well as Team MISA, developed to divert low-risk mental health offenders from prison in the very early stages of incarceration.
Speaking directly about racism and what action has been taken, Capello emphasized her administration’s commitment to racial equity, a list that includes some additions.
One is to require police officers to intervene and stop excessive force by other officers.
Capello said she and Breiner participated in an anti-racism workshop hosted by Sexual Assault Resource and Counseling Center, or SARCC.
“We are committed to improvement in this area,” she said.
When it was time for comments and questions, more than 20 people spoke up.
One man suggested forming a community policing board, which several others supported. He also wanted more cops on the beat, and asked the department to do more to recruit local minorities for the force.
Another said, “We need to actively listen to make it a point to find common ground to make (the community) better, inclusive, diverse, innovative, energetic.”
A woman of color who grew up with positive experiences of law enforcement said she was shaken when, while driving, she was stopped by an officer outside the city. She believed she was racially profiled.
Ali Perrotto, executive director of SARCC, said people of color often don’t feel safe, and there’s an opportunity for service organizations to provide training. “Solutions come from community engagement and involvement,” she said.
Breiner added, “We’re going to continue reaching out to people into 2021, keep on improving what we need to improve and sustain what we do the best.”
One man, a business owner, said his interaction with police has always been very good, echoing the comments of others. “My hat’s off to you guys,” he said.
Asked about the problem of systemic racism, Miller, the attorney, said racism as an issue is “very much in the forefront.”
But eliminating something that complex won’t happen quickly. “It takes time, it takes patience, it takes training,” he said.
One participant asked how many officers are bilingual in Spanish and English. There are four, Breiner said, one of whom is Ayala.
“I really wish we had more Spanish-speaking officers,” Ayala said, or those bilingual in other languages.
“It’s not enough,” Capello agree. “We want more.”
Fitzroy Lewis, of SARCC, closed by saying that each person’s experience is valid and it’s important to be able to empathize.
“How can we together go forward,” he said, “and make it better for everyone in our community?”
The full conversation is viewable on YouTube and embedded below.
Questions about this story? Suggestions for a future LebTown article? Reach our newsroom using the contact form below and we’ll do our best to get back to you.
Do you support local news?
If you believe that Lebanon County needs independent, high-quality journalism, consider joining LebTown as a member. Your support will go directly towards stories like this and you will be helping ensure that our community has a reliable news source for years to come.
Learn more about membership and join now here.