REG-L- Law Enforcement

Berks Count Sheriff Eric Weaknecht, left, and District Attorney John T. Adams outside the Berks County Services Center on Tuesday. They participated in a panel discussion about law enforcement on Wednesday.

The message was the same over and over again.

One by one, members of the Berks County law enforcement community took turns speaking about their pride over policing in the community. They decried "bad apple" officers, praised the idea of more and better training and spoke about integrating themselves with the communities they serve.

That was the theme of Wednesday afternoon's weekly Berks County commissioners' public and media update. The weekly online session was originally created to address the COVID-19 pandemic, but this week it shifted its focus in light of two weeks of protesting across the nation over racial inequity in the criminal justice system.

The panel discussion featured 10 guests representing different aspects of law enforcement: the district attorney's office, the prison, the sheriff's office, the city police department and suburban police departments.

In introducing the program, Commissioner Chairman Christian Y. Leinbach set the stage for the comments that would follow.

"I'm proud of the law enforcement folks that serve us here in our community," he said. "But there are things we can do better."

Rejection of Derek Chauvin

Each speaker, in his or her own way, derided the actions taken on Memorial Day by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the white officer who kneeled on George Floyd's neck for nearly 9 minutes while the 46-year-old black man died.

"We are disgusted about the tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis," said District Attorney John T. Adams. "This type of behavior by police will never be tolerated in our community."

Janine Quigley, warden of Berks County Prison, said the incident was "sickening."

West Reading Police Chief Stephen D. Powell called it a "failure on multiple levels."

"No police officer can look at that and say anything went right at all," Powell said, adding that Chauvin's actions showed a "apparent disdain" for Floyd's life.

Sheriff Deputy Zachary Smith said Floyd's death was "horrendous."

Miguel Castro, a captain at the Berks County Prison, said watching an officer sworn to protect the public commit such an act "shook me to my core."

Gerardo Vega, a county detective, said the sounds of bystanders pleading for Floyd's life haunt him.

"I just can't watch it again," he said, adding that he has never seen such a disregard for human life.

Mark Hackney, a police officer with the Reading Police Department, said Floyd's death was a tragedy, but not just for the black community.

"It was a tragedy for everyone," he said.

Hackney said he's been asked about Floyd's death quite a bit. It figures, he said, since he happens to be both a black man and a police officer. He also is married to a white woman.

People have been curious to hear what he has to say.

"It was hard to come up with an answer," he said, explaining that he feels the incident has hurt everyone. "Store owners didn't win, the black community didn't win, people who were hurt didn't win, police didn't win."

Looking in the mirror

Over the past two weeks, Detective. Sgt. Ramon Caraballo of the Muhlenberg Police Department has had a lot of conversations about race and policing.

"I've had some very encouraging conversations with people in the public and in law enforcement," he said. "I have also had very disappointing conversations with people in the public and law enforcement."

Caraballo said that, for the most part, he feels the public in Berks County is happy with the way policing is done. That shows up in the way the community has taken part in protests, which unlike other parts of the country have remain peaceful.

"Our community here doesn't feel so violated because we've been doing a decent job," he said.

Other panel members said similar things.

Adams said he wanted to reassure the community that he has "the utmost faith in law enforcement in Berks County."

Referring to Chauvin's actions, Vega said that he and his fellow detectives were not "trained that way" or "brought up that way."

But despite an overall feeling of pride in policing in Berks, the panelists agreed it is no time to sit back.

"We can always improve and do better, there's no question about that," Adams said.

Powell said there needs to be a constant effort to move forward, an endless effort to learn and evolve.

"If you're staying the same, you're actually moving backwards," he said.

What's the answer?

While there's no simple cure to make all policing perfect, the panelists did share their thoughts on what is being done and could be done to make it better.

The first step happens when deciding who gets to wear a badge.

Sheriff Eric Weaknecht said the hiring process is key to successful law enforcement. His office makes applicants go through a rigorous process that includes a four-hour test that measures their ability to retrain their use of authority, act ethically and help with human distress.

"Is this person going to be the proper law enforcement officer?" he said.

Quigley said only eight out over every 100 applicants gets hired at the prison. She said they're looking for employees who have high ethical standards and impartiality, ones who will step in when they see some wrong is being done and are assertive but not aggressive.

"I can teach someone how to put handcuffs on. I can't teach someone integrity," she said.

The next step, panelists said, is training.

Adams said that since 2011 the county has spent about $120,000 for local police to receive various training and will soon hold training on implicit bias.

"We want to make sure that our officers in Berks County understand this issue, and we will do our best to train our officers to be completely unbiased," he said.

Hackney spoke of a less formal type of training. He recalled being a young officer and having a conversation with the late Scott Wertz.

Wertz encouraged him to get out into the community and get to know the people there.

"It has been the best weapon I've had on my body, talking, my mouth," he said.

Hackney, now a 16-year veteran, said he tries to pass that lesson on to younger officers, many of whom have had little to no experience with the communities they're policing.

Several other panel members echoed Hackney's sentiment, stressing the importance of community policing and building relationships with the public.

The panelists also spoke about the importance of law enforcement officers holding their own accountable.

"We will not tolerate police violence. We just won't," Vega said.

Several of the panelists said it's crucial to have policies in place that force officers to step in when a colleague is doing something wrong. Intervening is not an option, they said, but a necessity.

"We need to stop and report excessive force," Smith said.

Caraballo said he would also like to see a system put in place where citizens can make complaints to a state watchdog, as well as one that tracks "bad police officers" who are fired or leave a department only to be hired at another.

The issue of defunding the police — a concept where money spent on policing is shifted to social services that has gained some traction over the past week — was discussed only briefly in response to a question from the public. The panelists soundly dismissed the idea.

Leinbach said it would do an incredible amount of damage to cut funding agencies, forcing them to cut staff and leaving them stretched thin.

“How in the world is that supposed to help community policing?” he said.

Hackney agreed.

“You can’t put a dollar value on safety and on relationships,” he said. “To defund the police, what does that mean? That’s not the answer. Every time I hear that I shake my head in disbelief.”

comments powered by Disqus