Cocalico Corner: PSP, local coverage, and 21st-century policing

By on April 6, 2016

If you’re in one of the 17 Lancaster County municipalities covered solely by the Pennsylvania State Police, you may have reason to feel pretty confident about your safety, especially if you’ve had the chance to hear PSP Commissioner Colonel Tyree Blocker speak.

And, if you are a citizen who resides in any of the four Cocalico municipalities covered by local police agencies, Blocker’s words will make you feel even safer knowing that the PSP officers have your back — and your officers’ backs — as well. Neighboring Brecknock Township, on the cusp of the Cocalico area and bordering Berks County, does not have its own designated or contracted police force and relies on the PSP.

It’s clear that this veteran of the force and Caenarvon Township, Berks County, resident takes huge pride in the force he leads.

At a recent meeting of local municipal officials, Blocker offered some insights into the working of the department.

Blocker, confirmed by the state senate in early December, came out of retirement in August 2015 to assume the post of acting commissioner after Gov. Tom Wolf’s first pick for the job, Marcus Brown, was rejected by state legislators last June. Blocker, who served 30 years with the PSP, retired in 2005. He and his wife own Snap Fitness 24/7 in Morgantown.

The commissioner grew up in north Philadelphia. In his years at the Avondale barracks, some of his higher profile cases included the 1987 investigation of a mushroom farm worker’s murder in Kennett Square and the 1999 confiscation of more than 1,800 pounds of cocaine from a truck during a stop on the turnpike in Chester County.

Following his retirement, he did a stint as a national security adviser for the government of Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean.

Blocker brings to the PSP a sensibility born of experience as well as intellect.

For the commissioner, 21st-century policing is the reality.

“The Pennsylvania State Police is a training-centric organization,” he said. “It is a priority and it is critical that all officers have the most up-to-date training.”

The best troopers are able to match their intellect and intuition with the technology available to them.

“Officers must possess superior interpersonal skills; they must be engaged in the people business,” he said.

Among the new challenges he sees troopers facing in the near future are autonomous (driverless) vehicles on the roadways. Another challenge that already exists and is growing is the prevalence of drones.

Blocker spoke of a recent incident in which a drone was flown over an Ohio prison yard and dropped controlled substances. The scurrying by inmates to gather the illegal drugs nearly incited a riot and guards needed to quickly both comprehend what had occurred and bring the situation under control.

Blocker said the PSP has forged a partnership with academia. It works with the Pennsylvania State University staff and engineering department on driverless vehicle research and with Villanova University on human trafficking investigations from a technology standpoint.

The commissioner contends that good 21st-century policing is the natural evolution of community policing.

“It refines things in terms of law enforcement agencies becoming more focused,” he said.

Personal outreach remains critical as well, he said.

“Law enforcement agencies must build trust with the communities they serve; they need to continue to have outreach on the state, municipal, city levels,” he said.

And, he added, the faces of law enforcement should reflect the communities covered.

“We need to increasingly look more like the people we serve,” he said. “The law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian rather than a warrior mindset. Maintaining the peace should be a collaborative effort. If we are the guardians, we are not the occupying force. We are saying we understand how important the majority of the constituents are that the police department works with, that they want to live in a peaceful community that respects its citizens.”

Just as the PSP and other police entities analyze crime trends, Blocker said there is a need to analyze public outreach.

“Law enforcement agencies should establish a culture of transparency and accountability to build the public trust and civility” he said. “Agencies should track and analyze the level of trust the community has in the police just as we measure crime.”

How to do that?

“Consistent annual community surveys,” he said.

As LNP staff writer Christopher Pratt reported Sunday, Blocker and his leadership know that a quarter of the more than 4,500 enlisted state police are now eligible for their pensions.

Gauging when individuals will retire is difficult, but what is clear, Pratt reports, is that the number of cadets graduating from the State Police Academy isn’t enough to make up for retirements, even though last year 406 cadets were graduated, the most in a decade.

The number is considerably lower in 2016. Overall, officials expect about 373 cadets to graduate, subject to normal attrition rates.

Lower numbers don’t coincide with demand.

Currently, according to the Associated Press, 1,287 of the state’s 2,561 municipalities, or half, have no police coverage and services from the state police are free to local taxpayers in these municipalities. Another 413 municipalities get free part-time coverage, such as providing evening coverage for part-time local forces. The remaining 861 municipalities pay for their own or contract with local departments. Overall, one-quarter of Pennsylvanians receive some sort of police coverage from the state police.

On average, the municipalities that get full- or part-time police protection have just under 2,000 residents, or about three-quarters the population of the average municipality, and they are 21 square-miles, or about 25 percent larger than the average municipality, according to an Associated Press analysis of state data.

Lancaster County has 61 municipalities, including the City of Lancaster. The 17 receiving free PSP coverage constitute a 28 percent well under the state average. Make no mistake; folks in East and West Cocalico townships and Adamstown and Denver boroughs are helping to pay for those 17 municipalities.

In Berks County, where Blocker addressed municipal officials last week, 28 of the 73 Berks municipalities receive PSP coverage. I was sitting at a “mixed” table of officials. Clearly those of us paying double for coverage were not amused by others noting their low tax rates, partially the result of not funding municipal police coverage.

State police resources are stretched thin and, if a patrol unit is 10 or 20 miles away when you place that 9-1-1 call for an emergency such as a robbery or shooting, you better hope that the criminal is either scared or incompetent because it may take a PSP unit 20 minutes or more to arrive on scene.

Pratt’s reporting goes into specifics about this:

“The shortage in Lancaster County, served by Troop J of the state police, outpaces the statewide shortage.

In all, 181 troopers are stationed here now, compared to 194 in 2014. Troop J is allocated 200 positions, but 19 positions are vacant, translating to a vacancy rate of nearly 10 percent. Statewide, the rate is 7.2 percent or 340 vacancies.

Trooper Ryan Lawrence, Troop J spokesman, said response times vary, depending on the nature of the complaints.”

Still Blocker’s explanation of how the PSP is practicing 21st-century policing and embracing both technology and personal outreach is a positive for all of us, no matter what entity provides our primary coverage.

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