At Monday’s Hellertown Borough Council meeting, borough police chief Robert Shupp shed some light on how his department is trained to avoid the use of excessive force.
Shupp was responding to a question that was asked by a resident anonymously and read into the record by borough council president Tom Rieger, who said the following question was sent to him and borough manager Cathy Hartranft over the weekend:
Police use of excessive force is a concern to all citizens. It also disproportionately brutalizes people of color in our country and has a severe financial impact upon the municipalities who suffer from it. Would the mayor and/or chief of police please share what specific steps Hellertown police have taken to ensure none of our officers use excessive force?
“We train every year in defensive tactics regarding use of force,” Shupp said. “There is a classroom portion of our training, there is a hands-on instruction portion of our training and there is also a scenario portion of our training, where the instructions are the role players and present different scenarios with different levels of actors, so they can assure that the officers are using the proper amount of force with what they are presented.”
Shupp said the department utilizes the services of a “globally-recognized company” called Protective Safety Systems to assist with training to prevent excessive use of force.
“I do feel they are the best out there, which is a good thing and why we don’t have many problems,” he said.
He added that all Hellertown officers are trained in de-escalation tactics by the Municipal Police Officers Education and Training Commission and in tactical communications by the Pennsylvania State Police.
“That is how we assure (compliance), is basically training, training, training, training,” he told council.
In order to prevent the hiring of any officers who hold racist beliefs Shupp said the department conducts “extremely thorough” pre-employment background checks.
“Our background check takes about four weeks,” he said, adding that they will talk to past and current neighbors as well as past employers to determine if an applicant has ever exhibited racist behavior. “The borough does pay for a psychological exam for the officer and they do sit down and have an oral exam with the psychologist. They are professionals. They know what to look for for things like that. So just so council is aware, we do take a lot of steps to ensure that.”
The question Shupp answered was asked against the backdrop of civil and social unrest caused by the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer May 25.
Although a peaceful protest against what some local residents believe is systemic racism against African-Americans was held Saturday outside Hellertown Borough Hall, Monday marked the first time that borough officials publicly addressed the issue of race within that context, and one resident said their responses were overdue.
“In matters of public safety, messaging and leadership are really important,” said resident Frank Pazzaglia. “So far, other than what I’ve heard tonight, the message from Hellertown, the absence of elected officials during Saturday’s peaceful demonstration, and the lack of anything on Facebook, Twitter or the borough’s website is one of complete and eerie silence. Silence does send a strong message.”
After Pazzaglia shared his views, both council president Tom Rieger and mayor David Heintzelman spoke to the issue at hand.
Rieger admitted that he had “struggled” with how to share his thoughts about what is going on in the wider world with regard to race over the previous two weeks.
As part of his journey toward making a public statement, Rieger said he reached out to organizers Bill Broun and Larry O’Donnell–of the group Saucon Democrats–following Saturday’s protest.
“There is no room in this community for hate. There is no room in people’s hearts for hate, and it does exist out there, and I don’t know exactly what to do about that,” he said.
“Our community like so many other things can triumph over everything if it comes together,” he added. “I did everything that we could do to make sure that Bill and Larry and the team that put on Saturday’s event had a successful event, and I was pleasantly surprised…and it should be the model event for the country.”
Rieger also shared an expanded version of his remarks on his council president Facebook page.
Heintzelman said that in his opinion, there is an incredible amount of “discord and dysfunction” in the country currently.
“Never did I sense a greater need for harmony and social justice than I do now,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what ethnicity or political persuasion one is; we are first Americans, who should care about each other.”
“Saying police brutality and discrimination in law enforcement is wrong doesn’t mean we don’t love and support the quality police force we have in this borough any more than prosecuting someone who abuses a spouse means we don’t support marriage,” he continued.
“I hope and pray this kind of neighborly concern I so often see demonstrated here in the borough spreads throughout our country, and that together we all bring about change for the better,” he concluded. “We really are all one, each of us entitled to dignity and respect, and to be treated equally under the law. We know today, as we always have known, that hate has no place in this borough.”
The full meeting may be viewed online via the borough’s Facebook page. The next borough council meeting will be held Monday, July 6 at 7 p.m. Meetings are held online via WebEx and Facebook live due to limitations on the number of people who may be present at gatherings.