Community ‘architect’ builds bridges between police and community

Photo By Deborah Lynch
Brendan, Brytanni, Blake and Blake Jr. stroll in a park near their home.

By Deborah Lynch

A few years prior to the tumultuous year that was 2020, credit Harrisburg Police Commissioner Thomas Carter for recognizing that Harrisburg police could not  continue to “do things the way things used to be done,” particularly that the unit needed to “change the way we interact with the public.”

In 2017, he brought back the community policing unit that had existed since the 1980s, but had been hit by Act 47 downsizing. To reinstate it, he needed a connected coordinator with a big heart for the Harrisburg community. Blake Lynch was the perfect person for the job. “I thought he was in tune with the Harrisburg residents and understood the pulse beat of the city,” Carter said. “You need someone like that.

“Police sometimes tend to be one way,” Carter continued. “I need to know how the people feel — what we don’t perceive as a problem, and they do — Blake Lynch understands that. He understands both sides. I tell him … ‘I want you in the neighborhoods to understand what the people need and the conversations they want to have with police, and he does a good job with that.”

He lived it

Lynch came to the Harrisburg Bureau of Police in March of 2018 as Community Policing Coordinator after working as director of development for the Boys and Girls Club of Harrisburg. With the creation of the Community Services Division this year, Cpl. Josh Hammer was promoted to sergeant, Lt. Milo Hooper was promoted to captain, and Lynch was promoted to director of the division. Lynch had also previously worked for the city as a programs administrator under former mayor Linda Thompson.

He speaks with reverence about his job for the Boys and Girls Club. “I was a product of the Boys and Girls Club, so to return to a place that did so much for me and my family — my uncle worked there, my dad used to play basketball there — to go back and help raise funds [over $1 million every year] to make sure they have a safe, positive place after school to go to was really important.”

Taking the job as the director of the Community Services Division and Community Engagement has been a “different opportunity — just being able to serve in a different way, but still affect the same community,” Lynch said.

Directors of community organizations, volunteers, business owners, and residents all know Lynch and they light up when they see him or at the mention of his name. “He’s kind of my go-to in the community policing work he does,” said Gloria Vasquez Merrick, executive director of the Latino Hispanic American Community Center. “He’s a great bridge builder between the community and the police. He’s boots on the ground on a regular basis. That speaks to his character, his personality, his desire to make sure that if the community organizations have needs or impediments or barriers to getting things done that he tries to help us the best he can.”

The role of the division

The division is tasked with quality of life issues and to assist with street crime. Lynch, a civilian, is director, and the city is currently working to fill positions for seven community aides, who will work alongside him in civilian positions to help bring resources to the community and to bridge the gap between community and police. 

As part of that, over the past year in response to Covid, the community division worked together with more than 200 volunteers and a partnership with the Central PA Food Bank to distribute more than 1.2 million pounds of food — 838,00 meals to more than 22,000 families in and around Harrisburg. Lynch is a proud member of the board of directors for the Central PA Food Bank. Some of what Lynch has done over the past three years that the new aides will also help with include working to end illegal dumping and diffusing situations such as loud calls, dogs, illegal parking, restaurant noise, etc. — quality of life issues. They have also helped with vaccine distribution. The unit will canvas the neighborhoods. 

“These are things that are serious to the neighbors on the block,” Lynch said. “It affects who you are, where you live. Everyone wants to live in a clean, safe community.”

That is why, Lynch said, it is so important for his unit to help the community to learn to trust those associated with the police. The role of the new CSA program will be to help facilitate and grow that relationship.

Each new aide will serve a specific district of the city (seven police districts). They will be expected to form relationships with neighbors on the block, nonprofits, churches, and schools. Resources will be deployed to those areas, needs will be determined, and it is hoped that residents will feel “safe and protected,” Lynch said. 

Carter said the Harrisburg Bureau of Police also did a study with the Lancaster police, which has had 20 community service aides (CSAs) for some time and determined that police don’t need to go out on some of the calls they get — that CSAs could take some of those calls and make a better connection with the people. He said the CSAs will be there to “handle situations that don’t arise to police issues.” He also said three mental health workers ride with officers to help diffuse situations with their different expertise.

While Lynch and the CSAs will not be dispatched to most calls, they will work every day to build long-term trust in the police department. “Giving that expectation is the most important thing we can do,” Lynch said of building trust. “People will eventually respect that and understand that this person really wants to help us.

“Communities of color can be skeptical due to the historical nature of policing. I quite understand that,” Lynch said. “That’s something I don’t take lightly. Continuing to serve, continuing to help, continuing to move the narrative forward that community policing is so vital — officers knowing neighbors … quality of life issues addressed … trash being picked up — all the things that make for a safer community.”

A difficult year

Lessening the load for police officers will allow officers more time to focus on active calls,” Lynch and Carter stressed. That also includes city officers working to take guns off the streets. In a March 30 press conference on community policing, Commissioner Carter noted that since 2015, his department has taken 1,370 guns off the streets (the attorney general’s office and other agencies also confiscate guns making that number even higher). The police officers also handled more than 20 protests in three months last summer.

Not only did 2020 present the myriad of issues associated with Covid, it also featured frequent organized protests — many based around policing, the George Floyd death following a police neck restraint in Minneapolis, and Black Lives Matter. Carter says the enhanced Community Services Division was not a response to that — that it had already been planned. “I’d had conversations with the mayor and expressed our views on policing — especially 21st Century policing,” he said, and Lynch added that the mayor, the commission, the city council, and everyone involved listened to the needs of the community. 

That same type of cooperation helped Harrisburg avoid the turmoil between the police and the protesters that many cities and towns suffered. Harrisburg police were proactive behind the scenes by meeting with protesters, helping them plan march routes, and stopping traffic. He said police prepared “to ensure public safety for everyone and to ensure that everyone had their right to protest and exercise first amendment freedom of speech.”

With Lynch canvassing the neighborhood along with his seven new community service aides, Harrisburg residents have someone “willing to go the extra mile to help as many people as he can,” Carter said. And, as Vazquez Merrick noted, Lynch has helped to change the perception of police in her community. “At first, I was really unsure,” she said of having police around her center. 

“He’s helping us and we’re helping him to create a positive image of the police force in our community. In the long run, we hope that goes a long ways towards people feeling safer, feeling more secure, and feeling like people outside of our immediate community really care about them,” she said.

With Carter’s vision, Lynch’s connection to the community, and the commitment of more than 140 officers who risk their lives every day, Harrisburg policing is on a path to creating a new type of community relationship.