The time for action is now.
That’s the message a handful of Harrisburg residents expressed to city leaders and officials Thursday during a townhall that drew roughly 60 people to Reservoir Park. The underlying message is that minority communities want equity, equality, and justice, a statement repeated throughout the event.
Brent Lipscomb, an event organizer, rattled off a list of unacceptable situations that residents are “sick and tired of.” His list included absent elected officials, who don’t push police reform and other pressing racial city matters to the tops of their to-do lists; police officers who go too far when reprimanding individuals; and injustices like stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus at the Dauphin County Prison.
As each topic was discussed — from defunding the police department to creating an advisory board — the line for public speakers barely dwindled. Several times throughout the forum, residents aired their frustrations to Harrisburg Police Chief Thomas Carter.
They said the number of homicides in Harrisburg is out of control. Several yelled at Carter for not providing them any insight into when the pattern would change.
Carter said there is a gang culture in Harrisburg, which stirred a heated response. Attendees said the problem with Carter’s comment is that he labeled Harrisburg’s youth and didn’t provide any information about homicide suspects.
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City Council member Ausha Green, who sits on the city’s public safety committee, said she doesn’t have a problem with “defunding the police.” But, to clarify what that means, she added, while she believes the city needs police officers, she said there are other ways to create a comprehensive plan to protect the public that doesn’t solely rely always on cops.
“Police officers need to get out of the business of responding to mental health calls,” she said.
When talking about creating an advisory board, aimed at police reform, that would include city residents’ voices, Councilman Westburn Majors was quick to note that Mayor Eric Papenfuse said he would agree to whatever city council wants to do going forward with the committee.
Majors said four years ago a similar discussion was had, however, at that time, Papenfuse didn’t agree with the council’s recommendations.
“I’m going to hold you accountable,” Majors said.
Others told Carter, Papenfuse, and Green, as well as Councilman Ben Allatt and Harrisburg School Board Member Jayne Buchwach, that having police officers in schools is harmful to students. Buchwach and Papenfuse engaged in a short debate about the merits of officers in schools.
“It creates the school-to-prison pipeline,” Buchwach said.
Papenfuse said school resource officers are there to support school safety and can provide mentorship to students.
Several times throughout the evening, panelists were interrupted by emotional responses. Residents said there is too much trauma happening in Harrisburg and the power to change that is the responsibility of elected officials.
Along with their message, they also sent a warning. They said they don’t want to be courted for votes anymore when nothing in their community changes. Going to the ballot box means voting out leaders who aren’t listening, speakers said.
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