Midstate police working to reduce minority youth arrests

Reducing the numbers of minority youth entering the criminal justice system is the goal of a Susquehanna Township program that is expanding across Dauphin County.

In the five years that Susquehanna Township has had a Disproportionate Minority Contact subcommittee, the rate of black youths arrested compared to whites has dropped by four times, said Lt. Francia Done, who leads the group.

Harrisburg is working to expand its DMC program into neighboring Dauphin County municipalities, said Karl Singleton, adviser to Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse.

The U.S. Department of Justice has mandated states to take steps to reduce disproportionate numbers of minorities at key stages in the juvenile justice system. The Pa. Commission on Crime and Delinquency funds DMC programs across the state.

Robert Martin, Susquehanna Township director of public safety, said the DMC subcommittee has helped promote understanding between the community and police, for police “to understand how we are being seen and perceived.”

“The goal overall is to reduce the number of minority youth entering the criminal justice system,” Done said, in part by educating youth on how to stay safe and teaching them what to do and not do when they encounter police.

She estimated the minority population in the township and school district at about 50 percent. When the DMC program began about five years, the Relative Rate Index for arrest of black youth compared with the total population was just over 4. It’s now around 1, Done said.

The Relative Rate Index is calculated by dividing the arrest rate of a minority group with the total population.

According to PCCD, black youths are more likely to be arrested for certain offenses, be detained before trial and be placed in secure facilities than white youth.

Susquehanna Township’s DMC program has held four youth forums for students in grades 6 and 10 to educate them and promote discussion on law enforcement and criminal justice issues,

Done believes the forums, along with Susquehanna Township School District’s programs, have made an impact.

“I attribute it to our kids,” Done said, also giving credit to Susquehanna Township School District, where most juvenile arrests originate.

“I think the school is doing a great job encouraging positive behavior, teaching the consequences, and my guess is they are defusing issues before they escalate,” she said.

Martin adds, “I believe with education and understanding, discretion is perhaps better applied and relations improved.”

Tod Kline, superintendent of Susquehanna Township School District, said Susquehanna Township police have built relationships with the community. Officers walk through school buildings regularly, and the School Resource Officer is well-liked by students.

Kline said the school district is one of the most diverse in the state, reflecting the community. “The diversity of the township is our district’s strength. The township police value it, too,” Kline said.

What Susquehanna Township DMC program offers

The theme of the township’s DMC program is “You Only Live Once – Make good Choices.” The yearly day-long youth forums are voluntary “field trips” for the sixth and 10th graders in Susquehanna Township. This year almost all sixth graders took part (more than 150) on June 2, while about 86 sophomores attended their forum in October.

The forums have been funded the past two years with a grant of about $50,000 from the Pa. Department of Crime and Delinquency.

The sessions focus on explaining why police do what they do, with hands-on sessions and reenactment of real-life scenarios.

Sophomores get to take part in mock traffic stops and police encounters, use a driving simulator that shows the dangers of texting and impaired driving, and learn about the different kinds of police searches and use of force guidelines. There are also sessions on cyber-crime, including bullying on social media and dangers of sexting, motivational speakers and question/answer session with attorneys.

Done said frequent comments she’s heard from students include “You stop people for no reason,” as well as “Why can police do whatever they want and get away with it?”

“The main goal is for everyone to be safe, and understand what police officers doing,” Done said, while police also get a better understanding of what kids are thinking today.

Done said she’s still surprised people are hesitant to talk to a police officer, and the forums allow youth to meet police and realize “we’re people too At the end of the day I just want to go home to my family and be safe. That’s my goal for every citizen as well – that I can help everyone go home safely.”

“We want them to understand that being a police officer is a very dangerous and difficult occupation, and that certain core elements of civility need to exist for all of us such as respect, courtesy and support,” Martin said.

He added that the program is an ongoing recruitment tool, showing how officers can make a difference in the lives of those they serve.

For the future, Done said they are planning the first parents’ forum. Martin said he hopes to keep Susquehanna Township’s program running even as a county-wide DMC program begins.

What’s happening elsewhere

In Harrisburg, Karl Singleton has met with eight police departments to get the DMC program running throughout Dauphin County. Those participating, in addition to Harrisburg and Susquehanna Township, are Lower Paxton, Lower Swatara and Swatara townships, along with Middletown, Penbrook and Steelton.

Harrisburg School District, Pa. Human Relations Commission, PCCD and Dauphin County district attorney, probation and parole and several judges are also involved.

Singleton said the effort is to reduce “disproportionate arrest rates of black and brown youth in comparison to their Caucasian counterparts.”

“All youth are in this equation,” Singleton said, with arrest of white youth also a concern.

The DMC effort examines cases where minority youth are disproportionately arrested. “No one is getting preferential treatment,” Singleton said.

“But we would like to know whether some may or may not be getting preferential treatment or access to diversionary program, counselors, other options sometimes available to some as opposed to all,” he added.

“The ultimate goal is crime eradication, and that we don’t have to talk about adult recidivism, because we’re proactively engaging young people early,” Singleton said.

Harrisburg began looking at DMC  about 10 years ago, but the administration then did not pursue the program. Singleton said Harrisburg doesn’t have the malls and movie theaters that attract young people to the suburbs, which is where some are being arrested.

“Our young people that are coming in contact with the law, they’re embedded in the suburban numbers, which is why it is necessary for us to take a regional approach. This DMC piece does not have any borders,” Singleton said.

Law enforcement has been “very willing participants,” Singleton adds. “There’s been no pushback from any of them. They understand the value in today’s climate of the opportunity to highlight the good law enforcement can offer,” he said.

Singleton said they will use Susquehanna Township’s youth forums with police as a model, and hope to bring in national speakers to address parents.

Harrisburg is using My Brother’s Keeper 21st Century Policing recommendations as a guide. Another strategy is promoting community safe spaces as a diversion for students who are suspended from school or headed toward the prison system.

Workshops for youth, parents and law enforcement are being conducted by the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, Morehouse College and Morgan State University.

100 Black Men of America chapter is forming, and the Police Athletic League is involved in mentoring youth.

Minority youth are also learning about careers in the legal system, to attract more to that profession.

Helping to strengthen families are partnerships with Christian Recovery Aftercare Ministries, HACC and the South Central Workforce Investment Board.

In Swatara Township, Chief Jason Umberger said he is working with Singleton in his efforts to start a countywide group.

Umberger said he did DMC training in October with the eighth grade at Swatara Middle School. “We have much work to do moving forward,” he said.

Police in both Swatara and Susquehanna township have participated in training through the YWCA of Greater Harrisburg on forming better relationships with minority communities.

Chief John Bey of Middletown said DMC doesn’t mean police aren’t arresting minorities when they commit crimes.

“We are equal opportunity arrestors,” he said. “You have to have balance. The issue is when contact with minorities for the same crime results in more arrests for minorities, for whatever reason,” Bey said.

There are also DMC groups in Lancaster, Philadelphia, Allentown, and Allegheny and Berks counties, as well as Dauphin.

Here is the Relative Rate Index regarding minority youth arrests for some midstate communities, based on 2014 population data and 2015 arrest data (Source: PCCD). The RRI is the black or minority arrest rate divided by the white rate:

  • Harrisburg: 0.38 black, 0.25 all minorities
  • Middletown: 1.33 black, 0.65 all minorities
  • Steelton: 1.16 black; 1.1 all minorities
  • Susquehanna Township: 1.47 black, 1.21 all minorities
  • Swatara Township: 11.38 black, 3.03 all minorities
  • Lower Paxton Township: 10.61 black; 3.95 all minorities
  • Penbrook: 8.25 black; 2.9 all minoritieshttp://www.pennlive.com/news/2016/11/midstate_police_working_to_red.html

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