The Allentown Police Community Outreach Unit (COU) is working to build better relationship between police and communities traumatized by shootings or crimes.
The unit, which has 8 main officers and one crisis intervention specialist, visits residents near areas where shootings occurred to heal some of the trauma that may have been induced by the event.
Recently, the unit has attempted to ease residents near a shooting that occurred by St. Luke’s Sacred Hospital-Sacred Heart in Lehigh County. Jorge Benzant-Martinez, 23, was found shot to death by police after they received a 911 call from nearby residents who heard the shots.
So far, police are still investigating the homicide and there have been no arrests, according to The Morning Call, but that doesn’t mean local police can’t reassure the community and put their worries at ease.
Following the shooting, COU members went door to door in the area to speak with neighbors and answer questions and concerns regarding the shooting as well as the general quality of life in the neighborhood.
Sgt. John Leonard, who coordinates with the COU, explained their role: “We answer as many questions and share as many details as we can about the incident, such as whether the crime was random or targeted and whether the suspect had any ties to the victim, provided those details won’t jeopardize our investigation in any way.”
Leonard continued, “We reassure residents that we’re there, maintaining a presence to keep them safe. Equally as important, we offer them a way to gauge how much the incident has negatively impacted their mental peace, and we offer information on how to restore that peace.”
COU members also gauge the mental health of a community near a traumatic event by handing out questionnaires to see if residents are experiencing any post-traumatic stress or anxiety.
Officers then refer individuals to a crisis intervention specialist, who follows up with anyone experiencing PTSD and directs them to various mental health services.
Both Allentown police and Lehigh Valley police department have brought on crisis intervention specialists (CIS) provided by Pinebrook Family Answers, a mental healthcare agency that provides services to trauma victims.
Vicky Conte, director of Pinebrook’s community-based mental health programs, said “The CIS was asked if she could go out with some of the Allentown police officers to reach out to the community impacted by the shooting. They knocked on every door and gave out resources for impacted individuals to contact if needed. The CIS also explained her role with our agency and the police and gave out her contact information for anyone needing to talk or needing assistance in accessing more resources.”
Allentown Police Chief Glenn Granitz Jr. likes the idea of following up with neighbors after a local incident.
“I began doing these door-to-door walks and follow-ups years ago by myself as a captain,” Granitz said. “I see great value in this. Our officers do, as well, and have been remarkable in following up on significant incidents and quality-of-life concerns. We’ve been doing these follow-ups in other capacities, but have found that returning to the neighborhood with our COU members, patrol officers and crisis intervention specialist is often the most effective.”
Allentown police Capt. Jim Keiser, chief COU coordinator, was also positive about the impact of the unit.
“When someone answers the door to an officer, there’s a certain tension in their body language,” Keiser said. “When our COU officers explain why they’re visiting the person’s home, that tension completely disappears. They relax and smile when one of the first things we tell them is that we’re there not to ask for info, but to give them info and any help they need.
He continued, “I tell folks that if I lived in their neighborhood and this happened right outside my door, I’d be as concerned as they are about. We’re here to try to get you through that.”
Erlinda Aguiar, a 30-year Allentown resident who heard the shots near her home, spoke about her own experience with the COU following the shooting.
“When they introduced themselves and explained why they were there, I thought, ‘Thank God they’re not here because of another incident,’ ” she said. “I felt relief. I was glad and really happy to learn that their visit was part of an effort Allentown police are making to reach out to the community.”
Although Aguiar is thankful for the COU’s visit and hopes others will benefit from it too, not everyone is as appreciative as Aguiar. Particularly, those in the Black community who support defunding the police are hesitant to embrace a more active role from police.
Ashleigh Strange, regional director of Lehigh Valley Stand Up, believes police should have a more limited role in the community, and that they do more harm than good, calling the relationship between police and Blacks “historically racist” and “negative.”
“We say we want officers to be part of the community they serve,” she said, “but we don’t have a residency requirement as part of the police hiring process. The best way to have police officers be part of the community is to hire from among residents who know the community.”
Keiser explained that the key focus of the program is to build trust. While he agrees with her idea of hiring qualified residents, he does not believe limiting law enforcement is the answer.
“Another of our latest endeavors is a partnership with Cedar Crest College to research and analyze our crime data and suggest areas where we may want to develop crime prevention programs,” Keiser said. “These programs go hand in hand with continuing to reach out and build those relationships of trust and cooperation with people in the community.”
“Trust” is the key motivation behind community policing/outreach efforts, Keiser said. Now more than ever, residents need to know they can trust their local police.
Hasshan Batts, executive director of Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley, and Black resident of North Eighth Street, was encouraged by the police’s activity, and thinks they need to spend more time engaging with members of racially diverse neighborhoods.
“Building trust takes time,” he said. “Consistency, familiarity, accountability and consistently maintaining the dignity and humanity of residents encountered by police is a starting point. It’s going to take investments in community partnerships with credible community messengers to connect with community members.”