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Chester County Press

Bringing Police and Community Together is Not Always an Easy Task: Is Change in Policing Possible?

07/30/2020 06:00AM ● By Steven Hoffman
Bringing police and community together is not always an easy task. Oxford Borough Police Chief Sam Iacono has been a police officer for 34 years. The current clash of police and community on the national level has been of grave concern to Chief Iacono and Oxford mayor Phil Harris. As a result of their concern, both have participated in a program titled, “Crucial Conversations That Lead to Real Change.”

The program, which was held at Willowdale Chapel in West Grove, was organized by churches Allen AMEShiloh PresbyterianOxford Methodist and Willowdale Chapel. The purpose of the group is to discuss violence and systemic racial and economic inequities. The group will work together to make changes. Both Iacono and Mayor Harris believe change is not something a legislative body can do.

As Mayor Harris said previously, “This is a human condition and by asking questions, discussing our stories, and coming out of our collective bubbles, we are hopeful that we can find a new path.” Iacono added, “We have joined in this conversation and I believe we are finding common ground. More importantly, the more programs like this that the community and police have, the more I see real change is possible. “The real challenge at this time is for people to listen, really listen, and hear what each other is saying. Most people don’t listen. Instead, they are thinking about their response and not hearing what is important to people. They are missing valuable information. If we don’t listen to where people are coming from, and what their perspective is, what their past experiences with the police are, we can’t move forward.” Iacono continued, “Unfortunately, sometimes the only common ground we have is fear. We fear each other. And that is no foundation for a trusting relationship. We have to have trust. And I understand that trusting anyone, even your family, is not an easy thing to do.  So I would say, my number-one goal is building trust between the police and the community, which is impossible without community policing.”

Iacono started his career at Wildwood, NJ for a season. After that, he was hired full-time in West Chester Borough, where he worked for 32 years. During that time, he was a patrol officer, a community policing officer, he performed undercover work for the detectives, was in charge of the accident division where he reconstructed accidents, and went through the ranks from corporal to lieutenant. Before he left there, he was in charge of training and personal standards, which meant his job was to constantly review the department to ensure that they are following the best practices in police work. That includes following required programs to secure accreditation. Accreditation is governed by the state of Pennsylvania and is regulated by PLEAC.
“It is worth noting that each state in this country operates through their own standards of practice. Every state is different,” Iacono explained. “To be employed as a police officer in the state of Pennsylvania, an individual must successfully complete a certified Act 120 program and pass the MPOETC state certification exam.”

Iacono is not a newcomer to Oxford. He has lived in the Oxford area for 27 years and although he admits he never really thought of becoming a chief of police, he realized he did want to do something for his community. When the police chief position opened up, he applied. He has been working in Oxford Borough for two years. In that time a new police policy manual has been approved. New purchases include body cameras, less lethal weapons, new car cameras, and a firearm with an attached flashlight and the training required for those new purchases is ongoing.
“Training never stops,” Iacono said. “We will constantly be monitoring the body and car cameras whether a complaint is filed or not, to ensure we are using best practices and, if not, more training will happen.”

The Oxford Police Department has implemented or updated practices as a result of the continual monitoring. The chokehold has been abandoned, use-of-force training occurs every two years or more often, and most importantly if an officer doesn’t perform as is required by the state of Pennsylvania, they will lose their certification. As part of that certification, police officers are required to perform minimum firearm training and follow strict guidelines on how to handle someone when they are arrested. Departments must also constantly work with the local district attorney’s office and are kept abreast of changing state laws. Iacono said, “I think a standard state policy for policing would benefit everyone.” Besides the local district justice, the local district attorney, and state regulations Iacono feels it is important to stay connected to the many layers of law enforcement.

Iacono was quick to point out that an incident like the one that led to the death of George Floyd should never happen. “It is horrible. It is 100 percent wrong,” he said. “We are here to protect the public. It is okay to disagree with a law enforcement officer, but for everyone’s safety it should be in court. But that being said, an arrest is never a pretty sight. Even justified force to save the lives of others doesn’t look good. When an officer has to use non-lethal force, even if it is legal, it doesn’t look good. As long as the threat to someone else is active, we have to stop that. We get a split second to make a decision. There is no one-size fits all. You can’t plan for what will happen, because every situation is different,” Iacono said. “Our job is to train our officers and to provide them with as much training as possible to de-escalate a situation, but at the same time to protect others surrounding the altercation, including us.” He added, “I think we need more training, not less. I’m not sure defunding is the answer, because we want all of our officers to be trained, not just some. However, I do think we need to re-think what kind of situations we send an officer into. I don’t think we need to send them out on codes enforcement issues. I don’t think we need to send them to a school for your typical fist fight, unless weapons are involved. I think sometimes when we send an officer into a situation it may escalate it.” Police coverage is often the biggest piece of a municipal budget so Iacono feels using them only as needed to protect and serve is a wise decision—and a fiscally responsible one. “I don’t think we should expect social workers to go into dangerous situations, but I do think police and social workers and medical personnel can work in tandem to prevent violent altercations,” Iacono explained. “Domestic situations are some of the most dangerous situations police are involved in, and when we see a red flag we should work with other agencies. If someone sees a problem developing in a family, we should encourage them to seek counseling before it gets violent.”

Iacono said he is learning from attending the program, “Crucial Conversations That Lead to Real Change.” That program is continuing. “The best thing we can take out of that is that we can’t take away from someone else’s experience. We can’t understand or put our self in someone else’s experience. Those that grew up in an inner city have a different perspective than those that haven’t. We simply can’t dismiss another person’s feelings,” he said. “And hear what people are saying. Don’t take it personally and start thinking of your reply. Hear what they are saying. Look at it in general terms. If you hear something you may not agree with you need to listen. You have to look at the bigger picture and look at it from their point of view.” The police chief continued, “That is very difficult to do in the middle of policing situations.” We have to train so it becomes second nature. No matter how long you have done this job, and sometimes because you have been on the job for so long, training must be updated. We have to think outside the box and not like a police officer sometimes. Dialogue is very important. That develops trust. We have to think of why someone is doing what they are doing. And we certainly have to ask ourselves if our response is justified. Anytime someone gets arrested, pepper-sprayed, put in handcuffs, it is not a pretty sight.”

Although Iacono said it is easier said than done, it is important to know when there is an incident and an officer shows up saying you are under arrest,  it is not the time and place to escalate the situation. “Save it for court,” Iacono said. “When everyone calms down and talks about it, it is a much better outcome.” Iacono said that the actions of bad cops make it very difficult for good cops. “All it takes is one bad apple and they destroy the trust in all police officers,” Iacono said. “Our goal is to get through a situation where no one gets hurt. We all want to go home to our families and loved ones, including non-police personnel. I know I can only speak from my perspective. I know people wonder why we don’t let a drunk person just walk home. If we see a drunk person walking in traffic, it is our responsibility to make sure he is safe too. When we go to a domestic and see signs of physical abuse, it is our duty to arrest the abuser. If we do something, or don’t do something, we are held accountable.

“I welcome input from the community. We have to have community involvement and I want to listen. There is no way to protect and serve without the input of those people we work for. I can be contacted at 610-998-0032. I welcome questions from everyone, and I really do welcome questions from parents and children.” Police Chief Sam Iacono.