Police-community relations remain a hot-button issue across the country, with protesters continuing to call for justice for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the defunding of police departments.
But in Bensalem Township, there’s cohesion rather than separation.
Earlier this month, the NAACP Bucks County and Bensalem Township Police Department signed a historic agreement, formalizing a partnership between the two organizations in the interest of improving trust between police and residents – an essential element to protecting public safety.
Present at the socially distant, public event outside of the Municipal Building was Director of Public Safety Fred Harran and NAACP Bucks County President Karen Downer, who both put pen to paper to make their multi-year unofficial relationship official.
“Both the NAACP Bucks County and Bensalem Township are committed to equal protection of the law for all citizens,” said Downer. “We have launched a new NAACP Bucks County initiative focused on reimagining public safety, and this agreement is an important first step toward continual improvement in police-community relations throughout the county.”
The agreement includes a commitment to regular meetings and open dialogue between NAACP Bucks County and Bensalem Police leadership; ensuring officers receive regular training that enhances their ability to have effective, respectful and peaceful interactions with all citizens, including people of color; and a broader process for the intake of complaints regarding police misconduct, including the ability for residents to report such complaints to the NAACP Bucks County or local religious leaders.
“We’ve been involved in events with the NAACP for a while. We’ve been working with them for as long as I can remember,” said Harran. “But I see a lot of stuff out in the public and on social media, and I don’t think the general public knows the relationship we have. I thought it was time to put it to pen and actually come up with a formal agreement and keep to it.”
Harran and Downer began drafting the agreement about two months ago, reworking a version created in Abington Township. According to Harran, it gives people who think they’ve been mistreated by an officer a comfortable outlet to voice their concerns.
“Over the years, I’ve been very stubborn with the idea that I don’t understand why people won’t come to us to make a complaint. I know we treat everybody fairly. I believe that. But it doesn’t matter what I think, it matters what other people think,” he said. “I wanted to give people a forum, an avenue that they could go to if they feel uncomfortable with a police officer. They can make a complaint or an inquiry to the NAACP or other groups. I want them to have an answer. It can’t just be, ‘It’s because I say so and too bad.’ And if something was wrong, we’ll fix it.”
This fall, Bensalem Police will undergo RITE (Racial Intelligence) training. The department also worked with District Attorney Matt Weintraub, The Peace Center and NAACP Bucks County to host a viewing of the documentary Walking While Black as part of racial training.
“Training comes in all forms, and it’s reviewing body cameras and in-car cameras, making sure people are being treated right, making sure the officers are doing the right thing for their sake and for the public,” Harran said. “But you can’t train someone to be fair and nice to people. You either have that or you don’t. I don’t think that’s a trainable thing. That starts at the hiring process and you’ve got to get it right the first time.”
Harran stressed that if an officer does handle a situation incorrectly, he or she will be required to receive more training.
“All this stuff we’ve been doing long before we’ve heard of the name George Floyd,” he explained.
Moving forward, Harran’s hope is that this agreement will serve as a model for communities not only in Bucks County, but nationwide.
“You have a major organization like the NAACP who is recognized as a liaison for many civil rights issues. I think it’s important to have the Bucks County NAACP willing to work with us and us working with them,” he said. “People have to see the big picture, which is, I can’t change yesterday. I can only worry about tomorrow. As long as organizations like the NAACP and police agencies around the country are willing to work together, then we’ll move forward and things will get better.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com