Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Harrisburg Police: Crime is down, helicopters are up, and body cameras are on hold until 2019.

Cpl. Josh Hammer demonstrates body camera equipment at a Sept. 2017 press conference. Police officials say that body cameras won’t hit the streets in Harrisburg until 2019.

Aggregate crime rates in Harrisburg are lower than they were at this point last year, according to law enforcement officials.

Capt. Gabriel Olivera credits the slight crime drop to a number of new strategies in the Harrisburg Police Bureau, including a partnership with the Pennsylvania State Police that allows a helicopter to aid Harrisburg police in street crimes missions.

The Harrisburg Police Bureau entered the partnership with PSP last fall under a three-month pilot period. They extended the partnership through 2018, and most recently deployed the helicopter for an hours-long patrol in Uptown Harrisburg on Tuesday night.

The patrols aren’t announced ahead of time, and some Harrisburg residents say they’re weary of the noise, light and perception of surveillance that the aircraft generates.

Olivera acknowledges the public’s concerns but insists that the helicopter is a valuable law enforcement tool.

“One thing we’re tasked with is public safety, and we’re trying to balance that with inconvenience,” Olivera said. “We’re trying to make sure city and citizens are safe by using every tool at our disposal.”

He also dismissed claims that the helicopter was being used for active surveillance. Pilots only aid the Harrisburg police on targeted missions, he said, and don’t rove the sky indiscriminately looking for criminals.

When the helicopter began aiding Harrisburg police last fall, officers said that aerial patrols helped officers apprehend criminals and seize illegal drugs and firearms.

Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse said recent missions have been similarly effective. Tuesday’s patrol resulted in two guns being pulled from the streets, he said.

Olivera says the helicopter patrols are “one of many” strategies that HPB has deployed in the last year to bring down crime. He declined to say what the other initiatives were.

“I’d would rather not get into details,” Olivera said. “We want to keep criminals guessing.”

He was also hesitant to offer any firm crime statistics, such as rates for property crime versus violent crime, or the magnitude by which crime has dropped since last year.

“Crime is overall lower,” Olivera said. “But I can’t say by how much… We still have a couple months left in this year, and next month things could change.”

The police bureau has encountered one significant setback this year, however, as the deployment of its city-wide police body camera program has been pushed back into 2019.

It’s been one year since police officials held a press conference to announce a body camera pilot program and an intent to equip all officers with the technology in 2018.

The city set aside $80,000 in this year’s budget to purchase equipment and software. Eight officers spent two months trying out prototype equipment, but Olivera said that they didn’t find a single model that suited all the department’s needs.

Before it can purchase any equipment, the department must issue a request for proposal (RFP) to solicit bids from vendors. That process has been slow, Olivera said, since the department is cobbling together its own specifications for recording equipment and software.

“We want to see if we can get everything we want out of the program, [but] it’s taken a lot longer than we thought it would,” Olivera said.

The department has hired a consultant to help it draft an RFP. Once they finalize it, they must send it out to bid and wait 60 days to receive proposals.

Olivera said they entered the consulting contract before Papenfuse enacted a spending freeze, which stopped non-essential spending in all city departments.

Papenfuse said that police are not exempt from the freeze, but he doesn’t expect them to spend any money on cameras until 2019. The freeze could be lifted by then, since Harrisburg will either exit Act 47, the state oversight program for financially distressed municipalities, or adopt a new Act 47 exit plan.

The police are in the process of acquiring three new motorcycles, according to a RFP posted to PennBid, the statewide bidding market place. Papenfuse said that purchase will be covered by a Dauphin County Gaming Grant.

Continue Reading