When Erie Police Chief Dan Spizarny requested $14.5 million in American Rescue Plan funding to bolster the Erie Bureau of Police, I zeroed in on the finances during Erie City Council’s Nov. 18 study session: How will we pay for 21 new officers when federal ARP funding expires in 2026?
By the time City Council voted unanimously for Spizarny’s proposal on Dec. 1, I realized our decision involved more than dollars and cents; we held life-or-death matters in our hands.
Although we approved the funding in 2021, we still had to put the plan into action. Late at night on June 15, after more than two hours of public comment, council voted 5-2 to hire the nine of 21 proposed new police officers, including two Black males and two females. Chuck Nelson and Jasmine Flores voted no.
But much to my astonishment and anguish, as soon as we hired these new officers, council voted to only guarantee their employment until Jan. 1, 2024, when the police complement must be cut back to 175. Councilmen Michael Keys and Ed Brzezinski joined Nelson and Flores to vote for the anticipated reduction in force; Mel Witherspoon, Maurice “Mo” Troop and I voted no.
Picture landing your dream job, giving notice to your old boss, then learning days before you start work that you could be among the last hired, first fired. City Council may have created that very scenario for these new officers, who will be sworn in on Monday.
Yet if council addresses the questions raised by some council members and the public, I am optimistic that we can move forward with this community policing proposal, which creates a juvenile unit, trains and staffs a mental-health crisis car, improves community outreach and expands the Police Athletic League, among other initiatives.
Those who work with domestic violence victims, mental-health patients and traumatized youngsters helped to develop this plan.
Black leaders who have worked tirelessly to improve police-community relations support it.
Business owners, weary from contending with vandalism of their property and harassment of employees and customers, back it. So do neighborhood groups who are frustrated when police don’t have time to investigate suspected drug-dealing or respond to sleep-disturbing noise.
The unrelenting uptick in gun violence is hard enough. But we are also dealing with the pandemic. “Everyone is crazy right now,” said my brother Mike, a state epidemiologist who lives in a crime-riddled Harrisburg neighborhood. Mike told me that researchers are investigating the physical effects of COVID-19 on the brain, not just the mental impact from isolation and social distancing.
In talking to my brother, I realized that storytelling can alter viewpoints and promote positive change.
For example, I moved from fiscal skeptic to staunch supporter of adding police in part because of a spreadsheet I created for City Council this February, titled “Erie homicides 2021-2022.” I listed the names and ages of each murder victim, the weapon used and whether any suspects had been charged.
Excel is a cold way to calculate the toll of gun violence. But this exercise helped me to put names and faces to both victims and suspects, as I drew from my years of writing about “ordinary people” every week as an Erie Times-News columnist.
In 2021, these ordinary people included Kalvin Davis, 18, shot in the head on July 1 while he was asleep at his home in the 500 block of W. 29th St.; Amy Hoffer, 55, shot by her boyfriend in a murder-suicide on Aug. 25 up the street from my Lincoln Avenue home; and Omar McNair, 25, killed at East 25th and Reed streets on Dec. 3 while he held a one-year-old baby.
I haven’t yet added Antonio “Espn” Yarger, 7, shot at the corner of Downing Avenue and Fairmount Parkway on April 14, to my list; he died on April 14. Espn’s father, Antonio “Jay” Yarger, 31, was shot to death on Sept. 16, 2016.
The victim from the April 5 shooting inside Erie High won’t make the list. The teenage victim, 16, suffered serious injuries but didn’t die, but students, teachers, staff, parents and yes, police officers, have been traumatized by this shooting. The suspected shooter, who was 14 at the time, will be tried as an adult.
Council’s vote to diversify the police force by hiring nine new officers is the start, not the end, of making Erie safer if we can build on the phrase that Daryl “Brother D” Craig, cofounder of the Blue Coats peacemaking group, created for blue signs planted throughout our city: “A Safe Community Begins With Me.”
You should feel safe and protected against domestic violence. You should know who to tell if you suspect that a family member or acquaintance has access to a gun that could be used in a crime. You should feel confident that you will be heard if you contact the Erie Bureau of Police to report a crime or a concern about suspicious characters, noise, vandalism or other neighborhood issues. You should feel secure that you will be treated with fairness and respect if you or a loved one has an encounter with the police.
You all deserve to be safe and well-informed.
To help spread the word that in Erie, “a safe community begins with me,” we will use City Council meetings to update you on public safety trends, data and progress. We will watch new policing strategies being implemented in other municipalities with ARP funding to monitor their success. We will update you on proposed state and federal gun-reform legislation.
City Council will start this effort to improve communication at council’s 9 a.m. meeting on July 6, when Chief Spizarny will report on how body-worn cameras are working in Erie. It’s safe to say that I will pay close attention.
Liz Allen is the president of Erie City Council. She can be reached at [email protected]
Erie police hiring plan guided by research, addresses violence