Task force examines community-police relationship, seeks best practices

February 02, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – In an effort to strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and underrepresented racial and ethnic groups in the Penn State community, a new town-gown task force has been reviewing best practices and developing observations and recommendations in a report to be released later this spring.

The group, the Task Force on Policing and Communities of Color, includes more than 30 people representing a cross section of the campus and local community, as well as Penn State Police and State College Police.

The task force’s work focuses on three overarching goals – diversity and inclusion in the Penn State and State College police departments; training police officers to more effectively serve a diverse community; and community engagement and addressing racial and ethnic minority concerns, said Lydia Abdullah, the group’s chair and director for Penn State’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion for Finance and Business.

As part of the work, the group has been benchmarking, examining best practices from around the country on community policing and discussing community observations and concerns.

“We represent the public. We work for the public and the community. It’s a great way to get feedback from the people,” said Tyrone Parham, Penn State’s recently departed director and chief of University Police.

Though there have been a number of high-profile incidents involving police across the country, Abdullah said the task force wasn’t a reaction to the headlines.

“We wanted to get ahead of this national trend and provide a safe and proactive climate for people of color,” she said. The charge for the task force originated from a discussion between David Gray, the University’s senior vice president for Finance and Business, and Tom Fountaine, State College borough manager

“They wanted a task force to develop recommendations for the State College and Penn State police departments that included ways to diversify the forces, as well as improving relations between the police and people of color,” Abdullah said.

The task force’s report will be completed by March, she said.

Thomas King, chief of the State College Police Department and a borough resident, said he hopes the work of the task force will help law enforcement forge a tighter bond with the underrepresented community on and off campus.

“We have a great relationship with Penn State Police and the administration, downtown businesses, organizations and neighborhood associations, but when it comes to black student leaders or Latino student leaders or churches with significant underrepresented populations, we haven’t done a consistent job of communicating with them,” King said. “What else do we need to be doing to better connect with underrepresented populations? We must find effective mechanisms to establish and then maintain positive partnerships with people of color and other groups with whom we have yet to connect.”

Parham added, “This is the first time we’ve done anything like this. This is a great way to gain community involvement.”

As the task force went about its work, members said they learned a vast amount about the challenges of policing and people’s perceptions.

“I’ve learned it’s hard to become a police officer. I have a new-found respect for that,” said Gary Abdullah, a student advocacy specialist in the College of Education. For example, Abdullah said he found it enlightening when the group studied police use-of-force models and how officers determine the level of force required for a particular situation.

“The public doesn’t fully understand use of force,” Lydia Abdullah said about the decision-making process officers go through in situations as they unfold.

King said such observations are enormously valuable to his department.

“What’s most helpful is hearing from our community members and the diverse viewpoints,” he said. “The police profession has a bit of mystique. We do not sufficiently communicate the myriad duties and responsibilities of our police officers and the quality service they deliver to our community.”

Parham added, “I think we have to be more transparent in sharing with the public what it takes to be a police officer and the in-depth and ongoing training that’s involved.”

Recruitment of underrepresented people of color is a major priority for both police departments.

“It is critical for police departments to employ officers that are representative of the community they serve. While we have tried various strategies over the years to recruit and hire a diverse police force, we continue to lack racial diversity. I am looking forward to the task force’s recommendations,” King said.

 “Are there better ways to recruit police officers from these underrepresented communities?” Parham asked. “We need to know.”

For committee members, the release of the report won’t mark the end of the work.

“This is an ongoing process that will not stop with the release of this report. It will evolve and grow as the community changes,” Gary Abdullah said. “The document we’re going to produce is only the beginning.”

Last Updated February 10, 2016