After nearly 47 years with the Cornwall Borough Police Department, Chief Bruce Harris will hand in his badge and service revolver when he retires from the force on Friday, May 7.
It is a mind-boggling statistic for any profession, but especially for individuals like Bruce Harris whose careers are in law enforcement.
“The national average a police officer spends at one department is less than five years,” says Harris, who joined the Cornwall Borough Police Department as a patrolman on Dec. 1, 1974 and who’s served as the chief for the past 35 years. “I think being able to help people and feel that you can make a difference was most appealing to me.”
Being a public servant is a driving force for Harris – even during his first full-time job as a security officer at various Hershey properties, including Hersheypark, Hershey Lodge, Hershey Hotel and Milton Hershey School.
“I just enjoyed the interaction with people – even something as simple as someone coming up to you at the park asking how to get to a particular ride,” Harris said, “and then the next moment there could be a medical emergency that we responded to to try and help someone. But that job was a good experience in the number of people I was able to come in contact with on a daily basis.”
There are several reasons Harris says he’s stayed in the same job for four-and-a-half decades.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” Harris said. “For the most part, the borough council members and the mayors I’ve worked for have given the police department the tools and the manpower for us to do our jobs. The community has also been very supportive.”
After working as a patrolman for eight years at Cornwall Borough, Harris became a sergeant for four years and then chief in March of 1986. During his time in that role, his biggest achievement he says is moving the police department from a part-time to full-time force.
“When I started we didn’t run 24 hours a day, part of that time was covered by the state police,” says Harris. “I consider one of my biggest accomplishments as chief is when we were able to become a full-time department on Jan. 1, 1996. The reason that happened was that we were given the contract to provide police service to West Cornwall Township and then shortly thereafter we got the contract to provide police service to Mount Gretna Borough.”
Adding those two municipalities enabled Cornwall Borough to move from three police officers to a staff of 13 employees.
“Between those two contracts we were able to increase our manpower to the point that we could have an officer on duty 24 a days, 365 days a year,” Harris said, adding that the department currently has six full-time and five part-time officers, a full-time administrative assistant and a part-time cleaning person.
A double homicide in April 2018 is one of the most memorable cases for Harris during his career – especially since murders are a rarity in this bucolic community. (The only other homicide during his tenure was a murder/attempted suicide at the Jigger Shop in Mount Gretna in September of 2015.)
In the 2018 double homicide, three individuals, all of whom were from Reading, were riding in a car heading north on Route 72 after exiting the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Harris related. They had just passed Spring Hall Acres development when the person in the back seat shot the two people in the front of the car, causing the vehicle to crash.
“The passenger in the front seat managed to get out, made it a short distance and collapsed on the road,” Harris said. “The shooter ran off, but was arrested a week later. He was convicted on two counts of homicide and my recollection is he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. We get fatal accidents, some suicides, but homicides are pretty uncommon.”
When asked what traits are needed to be an outstanding police officer and the top leadership qualities of a police chief, Harris cites several attributes.
“Being fair and being willing to listen to people and understand that there are always two sides to a story,” Harris said. “In terms of leadership, treating the people who work for you the same way you’d like to be treated, I believe, is a major factor.”
Harris plans to spend his retirement traveling with his wife, Donna, who last October retired from Penn State College of Medicine. They both love to visit Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and Florida on the east coast, the latter over the winter months. When not on the road, Harris and his wife look forward to spoiling their eight-month-old granddaughter, who lives with her parents in North Lebanon Township.
After four-plus decades of service to the community, you’d think that Harris would want to step aside, but that’s not in his DNA. He hopes to continue working for the people of Cornwall Borough but in a much different capacity.
“I’m running for a seat on borough council,” says Harris, who is running along with five others for four seats on the council. “A lot of people have asked me that (why he would want to run), but my answer is that Cornwall is such a neat community and the community has been very good to me. If I can offer my experience and expertise, then that’s what I should do.”
His drive to run for a position on council is rooted, he says, in his strong feelings about the community and its residents.
“I love Cornwall – I lived here for so long and Cornwall is my home,” Harris said. “I love the borough and so many things about it. The growth that we’ve had in the time I’ve lived here has been well-planned but there’s potential for more growth to occur, mostly residential and some commercial. I also pretty much know everything on how the borough runs and I would love to offer my knowledge and serve on borough council.”
Before the election on May 18, Harris, who is 67, will step aside as chief. Sgt. Brett Hopkins, who has been with Cornwall Borough as a police officer for 34 years, will become the chief of police on May 8.
“Come May 10, I think I’ll wake up and think, ‘Geez, I don’t have to go into work today’,” said Harris. “I feel that if I walked away from the borough completely, then I think it might be a lot more difficult than if I am able to stay with the borough as a member of council, which will be determined in the election.”
“But if I turned in my keys, my computer access and everything else and then was completely gone, even though we will still be living here, I think that would be a little more difficult to deal with,” added Harris.
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