Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Harrisburg schools open doors to police officers under new partnership.

Leaders from the Harrisburg City School District and Harrisburg Police Bureau pose after the press conference where they announced their new partnership.

Thanks to a new partnership with district leadership, Harrisburg’s police officers now have an open-door invitation to enter Harrisburg city schools.

Officials from the school district and police bureau convened a press conference this morning to announce a formalized partnership that they hope will bolster safety, community relations and career readiness in Harrisburg’s 13 elementary, middle and high schools.

The police officers won’t have permanent stations in the school buildings, as they did under the school resource officer (SRO) program that ran until 2009.

Instead, officers will be able to freely enter school buildings to talk to students about public safety, community service and career preparation.

Officials made clear today that the emphasis of the new partnership is improving community relations with the police, not punishing students.

“We are not here to give out any criminal charges or to arrest any kids,” police Commissioner Thomas Carter said. “We’re here to be a resource and a positive role model for the students.”

When funding for the SRO program dried up in 2009, it left the district without a codified relationship with the police bureau.

Keeping with state law, the police enter an annual memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the district, establishing procedures for police response to incidents on school campuses.

Absent an emergency incident, however, police officers had to follow the district’s standard visitor policy to enter school buildings, arranging visits ahead of time with the permission of administrators.

That will change under the new partnership. Harrisburg police officers may now enter school buildings at any time to visit classrooms or socialize with students during breaks.

Officials hope that more spontaneous interactions with the city’s youth will foster a positive image of law enforcement.

“When students see a police car outside the school, it’s negative – they think something bad has happened,” Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney said. “That’s why this partnership is important.”

Capt. Gabriel Olivera said that the police bureau does not currently have the manpower to launch a new SRO program. But neither the police nor the school district is ruling it out in the future, he said.

“This partnership is a good starting point, and, if at some point in the future, both entities decide [to welcome SROs,] then that would be possible,” he said.

The new partnership does not require a written agreement or any funding, so it did not need the approval of the Harrisburg school board.

The school board turned down proposals for a school resource officer program in 2015 and 2016, according to news reports, after Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse offered to provide funding for a one-year pilot program.

Papenfuse was not present for today’s announcement.

Many district parents also objected to the proposed police presence in schools, fearing it would lead to arrests or use of force against students.

Knight-Burney said today that school climates have changed in recent years amid a series of high-profile school shooting incidents, including a 2017 shooting in a Parkland, Fla., high school that left 17 dead.

She said that a conversation with Parkland’s superintendent helped her see the importance of law enforcement partnerships.

“Part of what we talked about is how to have relationships where we’re not reactive, but where we build a foundation of communication so, when things like that happen, we have plans in place,” Knight-Burney said.

She added that a recent spate of gang violence among high-schoolers and middle-schoolers highlighted the need for a stronger police presence.

Under the leadership of Cpl. Josh Hammer and community policing coordinator Blake Lynch, Harrisburg’s five-member community policing unit began making inroads with the school district this fall, when they started hosting ice cream socials with elementary school students.

The success of those events led to the new open-door policy, Lynch said today.

He hopes to see officers in at least one school building every day under the new partnership, talking to students about topics such as social media, gun safety, drugs and alcohol and community involvement.

The police bureau also hopes it can solve some of its staffing woes by recruiting students from the city’s high schools. They plan on marketing their Cadet Program, which can reimburse new recruits for college costs if they pass consortium testing and take a policing job in Harrisburg.

“When students start to see police not in a negative light but in a positive light, they may start to see themselves as future police officers,” city council public safety chair Ausha Green said.

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