Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

New Cops on the Block: How one police department built public trust with a community-centered approach.

Sgt. Sharkey Lacey

On a chilly Wednesday night in late October, Julio Ferrufino glides his behemoth police cruiser down Vaughn Street in Susquehanna Township. He points to each house he passes.

“That’s Mrs. Bell. She had surgery, but she’s recovering now.”

“That guy? He’s a truck driver from Florida, and his son has special needs. He’s goes back and forth a lot.”

The litany continues: a woman whose home was recently burglarized, a local teacher, a retired New York City cop with 10 cats and five dogs. A home he suspects is a haven for drugs.

Vaughn Street cuts an artery down the township’s Montrose Park neighborhood, which abuts the northern border of Uptown Harrisburg. Ferrufino, a barrel-chested, loquacious Marine Corps veteran who’s served the Susquehanna Township force for 10 years, patrols the neighborhood daily as part of his assigned beat. He’s known among officers and residents as the “mayor” of Montrose Park.

“I know everyone, and everyone knows me,” he said with nonchalance.

When Ferrufino sets out on foot patrol or checks in on a resident, he’s employing practices that have long been considered part of police work, but only recently given a name: community policing. That term arose in the 1990s, and since then, Susquehanna Township has become a regional leader in community policing initiatives. Under the leadership of Chief Robert Martin, the force has consulted with departments throughout the commonwealth that want to build rapport with the people they police.

Citizens, for their part, seem to be taking note. At an October forum about policing hosted by Harrisburg Hope, one Harrisburg woman said she’s considering a move to Susquehanna Township because she admires the police department. Another woman with family in the Township said that her nephews speak glowingly of their foot patrol officer.

Martin, a 30-year veteran of the force, will be the first to admit that implementing community policing initiatives takes time and money. But sacrificing those two important resources reaps another invaluable dividend: public trust.


The concept of community policing has its roots in the earliest policing practices, which date back to 1829, according to a paper from the U.S. Department of Justice. That year, Sir Robert Peel founded London’s first metropolitan police force to address an uptick in violent and petty crimes. Peel’s officers each served a designated patrol area, where they were to acquaint themselves with residents and intervene in crime. Peel also adopted military-inspired uniforms so officers would be visible to residents and implemented the military command structure that forces still use today.

Most American cities had police forces by the time the Civil War began, but policing here quickly took on a more militaristic and political bent. Many of the earliest American police officers were agents of social control, employed to police slaves, indigenous people and immigrant minorities. Victor Kappeler, a crime historian at Eastern Kentucky University, writes that the first constables in New England were charged with protecting settlers from Native Americans. Many Southern police forces originated as slave patrols, helping slave owners find runaway slaves and quell rebellions. Urban police forces grew when Catholics, Germans, Italians and Eastern Europeans immigrated to the United States, as white, Protestant Americans called for the preservation of “law and order.”

American forces were also distinct from their European counterparts because they carried guns, according to the DOJ. And, since police captains were appointed by elected officials, police departments became ensnared in local political structures.

If you ask Chief Martin what he thinks caused the biggest change in modern policing, he’ll give you a simple answer: the climate-controlled police cruiser. As American cities sprawled into suburbs after World War II, police officers found themselves patrolling more diffuse populations. Automobiles became the most practical way to cover ever-expanding neighborhood beats.

But even as officers covered more ground, they retreated on another front: face-to-face interactions with residents.

“It really took away that everyday, every-hour communication with people we served,” Martin said. “After two decades of that, unconsciously, the profession was only dealing with people when we were called out for something bad that happened.”

When Martin joined the Susquehanna Township force in the 1980s, he was troubled, he said, by what he perceived as the department’s lack of relationship with its citizens. When he was promoted to chief in his 10th year of service, he made two swift mandates to get officers out of their cars.

He started by ordering mandatory foot patrols. Every officer on Martin’s force must complete one foot patrol per shift, and they’re encouraged to strike up conversations with residents as they go.

“They said ‘talk to the community,’ and I said ‘great, I’m a talker,’” Ferrufino said, recalling his orders when he first joined the force. He thinks the foot patrols benefit both citizens and officers. It gives residents peace of mind to know that officers are afoot, he said, and helps officers build trust with people who might later aid in investigations.

Martin likes to say that an officer’s best tool on the job is his communication skills. Ferrufino has honed his throughout the course of his career, and today has his own standard for engaging residents.

“At the end of the day, you want to deal with the public the same way you want people to deal with your family,” said Ferrufino, who is married with three children.

The interactions Ferrufino has with community members are a far cry from his own experiences with police officers as a youth in Newark, N.J.

“The culture in the inner city was that we didn’t speak to cops unless we had to,” he said. “I knew that, if I was a cop, I wouldn’t want to be like that, so those guys were my teachers, in a way.”

Martin also restored beat policing, which made each officer responsible for cultivating relationships in a specific neighborhood. An officer will respond to calls anywhere in the township, Martin said, but develops “ownership” of the area in her beat.

“If I have an emerging problem in a patrol beat, I know I can hold certain officers accountable for it,” Martin said. “I go to the officers on that beat and I know they’ll be the problem solvers.”


With foot patrols and beat policing as a foundation, Martin introduced a series of initiatives over the course of a decade to build public trust in the police. In Susquehanna Township, that process starts with kids.

The first program Martin implemented, called “Honorable Endeavor,” requires officers to interact with any children they see on patrol. Every time an officer plays catch with a group of teens or invites a toddler and his parent into a squad car, he or she must document it with a departmental report.

“If it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen,” Martin said. Meticulous recordkeeping allows the department to furnish data for township commissioners or residents, and Martin also considers the reports in every officer’s performance reviews.

Officers are also required to enter schools and engage children on a “Word of the Month.” This initiative, called “Stand in the Gap,” allows officers to teach students values and behaviors they might miss at home, said Sgt. Sharkey Lacey.

“We’re trying to teach them character traits of an upstanding citizen,” explained Lacey, who currently serves as an interim school resource officer. “If they don’t have those values at home, they learn them, and, if they do, then it’s being reinforced.”

On a recent Wednesday morning, Lacey entered a fifth-grade class at Holtzman Elementary School and talked to students about the word “value.” After soliciting definitions from students and doling out police department pencils for participation, Lacey left the diverse group with an uplifting takeaway: “Everyone has value for what they can teach you, regardless of where they come from or what they look like.”

Martin, who was raised by a single mother in Delaware County, Pa., said that police officers have a role in affirming children who might face difficult home lives.

“When you’re a police officer in uniform, you can have a real positive effect on some young men and women in tough situations,” Martin said. “We should take every opportunity in our profession to do that.”

He also wants officers to take every opportunity to remind residents that they’re being policed. The final pillar of the department’s community policing program is an initiative called “Vigilant Protector,” which mandates officers to intervene in situations that might invite crime. If a car parked on the street has open windows, for instance, an officer must try to contact the owner or leave a note reminding them to be cognizant of risks.


Martin and Ferrufino both agree that police officers today have more demands on their time than ever before. They’re called to do the work of mental health professionals, domestic mediators and social workers, Martin said, all while enforcing traffic laws and responding to violent crimes. The immediate demands of most police work don’t leave much time for proactive community policing.

“You have to take advantage of available time in a patrol shift, and, with a busy city police department, you might be down to minutes,” Martin said.

But Ferrufino doesn’t think that time scarcity should undermine a community-centered policing approach.

“You can always make time to talk,” Ferrufino said. He added that even an ordinary traffic stop allows an officer to present a polite, well-meaning and non-confrontational face to the public.

Martin expects that social service agencies might integrate with police forces in the coming years, which would provide much needed assistance to officers responding to mentally ill or aging residents after business hours. For now, however, Martin says his officers will continue to accept the growing demands of their profession.

“We don’t say no,” Martin said. “What we do here is try to build relationships, and that has to take place on a daily basis.”

Continue Reading