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Council members question police agreement funding

City Council recently approved an agreement between the city police Special Response Team and law enforcement agencies — though two council members objected.

Councilman David Banks and Councilwoman Liz Miele voted against the agreement because the wording of the resolution added the potential for city general fund dollars to be used to cover training costs for Special Response Team officers from agencies other than the city.

Due to the unknown fiscal impact the COVID-19 pandemic has caused on the development of next year’s city budget, Banks and Miele said they were unsure about voting for the agreement, not knowing if it would mean any additional costs for taxpayers.

The agreement, which places officers with the South Williamsport police, Tiadaghton Valley Regional police, county district attorney and sheriff offices on a tactical team, was approved for each of the agencies by council Thursday in a 4-2 vote. Councilman Jon Mackey was absent.

Miele said that, notwithstanding the skills, abilities and management expertise of the tactical team, she struggled with language in the agreement that was added to include that specialized training for officers outside of the city may be paid by city taxpayers through the city general fund and may or may not be reimbursable.

The team is part of a terrorism task force that can and has responded to incidents in nearby counties in an eight-county area, but as much as 78 percent are calls in Williamsport, city Police Chief Damon Hagan said.

Miele said she wanted Hagan to explore more interaction with the county in terms of potentially funding what essentially is a city-based team, but which may be called to provide that wide of geographical service.

Miele also said she wanted to see a separate line item in the budget for the team training to better analyze its effectiveness and costs on an annual basis.

Banks said he struggled with issues such as the language indicating the training for officers not employed by the city, which can be paid for by city general fund. He also was concerned about the “militarization” of police and the impact that could have on the community.

Hagan said the specialized training costs are usually borne by the parent agencies, the county district attorney office and a SRT donation fund first. The last resort would be to ask for these costs to be paid for by city tax dollars, he said. But in the case when a specialized school is available and there is a need to send officer or officers to these, the option is included in the wording of the resolution should there be no other means of covering the costs.

What these outside municipalities provide is incalculable as part of the overall tactical team. The outside agencies are paying for thousands of dollars in overtime, Hagan said.

“For the training alone they are contributing $26,000 to a team operating 78 percent of the time in the city. They don’t ask for much in return,” Hagan said.

The pandemic has resulted in many hours of lost time training.

“We have lost $20,000 worth of training because of coronavirus,” Hagan said.

Hagan listened to council debate and said he agreed with more entities participating in the program and funding it, however, it is a 30-year-old team, originating in the city and consisting of city officers.

The team may be called to non-ordinary police action such as serving dangerous arrest warrants, providing executive-level protection such as President Donald Trump’s visit to Williamsport Regional Airport, reaction to riots, downed officers, civilians shot, rescue operations, armed individuals that would require sniper operations and people who barricade themselves and threaten their lives or others — in his words, “a host of difficult and dangerous situations otherwise sending regular patrol officers from city and nearby departments may not be as equipped to handle.”

Miele noted how there are incidents such as one in which a shooting occurred at West Fourth and Elmira streets that ended up concluding in Lock Haven. As such an example, she said there needs to be further exploration into pulling more regional partners into the funding of the team.

Councilman Adam Yoder asked for Hagan to also approach the county officials regarding continued input and to provide council with some form of being able to assess these costs.

What part of the training budget is represented by the team will be given to council during the budget session, Hagan said.

As to Banks’ concerns about the “look” or militarization of police during these tenuous times, Hagan said he was a community officer for many years, but more importantly, while under his command, the use of the team will be done in a “judicious way.”

“The existence of the team saves lives,” Hagan said.

Mayor Derek Slaughter said city police are taking appropriate de-escalation training.

The department, as a whole, is undergoing a council-approved multi-year accreditation that will ensure continued professional standards at the highest level, Hagan said.

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