Whitehall honors police officers as chief vows to root out bias

KEVIN CORVO
kcorvo@thisweeknews.com
ThisWeek group

In a world upended by both the COVID-19 coronavirus and an undercurrent of racial unrest, Whitehall police Chief Mike Crispen has pledged to the community and Whitehall City Council that he is leading his department in an effort to identify any implicit bias within it.

In exchange, Crispen called for and received a resolution honoring police for their "dedication, service and commitment," adopted Aug. 4 by City Council.

It followed council's action to adopt a resolution June 16 that declared racism a public-health crisis and to enumerate commitments that include training all Whitehall employees to identify and mitigate implicit biases and racism; reviewing paramedic and police responses, including "use of force with a racial equality lens"; and encouraging developers to integrate affordable housing.

The ordinance was requested by Mayor Kim Maggard, city attorney Michael Bivens, council President Tom Potter and council member Lori Elmore.

Crispen said police were not aware the June 16 resolution would be introduced and that some officers showed concern it was directed at their department.

Crispen said he conducted an internal and anonymous survey of his officers -- necessary to elicit open and honest responses, he said -- and found an overwhelming number are worried about their careers and their safety, both from the risk of COVID-19 exposure and potential encounters with violent suspects.

"One officer said he was willing to run into bullets and die for the city but was not willing to go to prison," Crispen said. "That set with me."

Such a mindset, Crispen said, undermines the very goals the Whitehall Division of Police has strived to meet: a dedication to the unrelenting protection of life, property and civil liberties and proactive policing.

"We spent years creating a perception in Whitehall that you do not want to come here and commit crimes," he said. "(Proactive policing) is a staple in what we do to keep the city safe. Now that's backing off, (and) criminals think they can get by because police are on their heels.

"They are not being the officers that I am used to them being, and I am not as comfortable to push them to do it because I am every bit as concerned for them as they are."

To that end, Crispen asked council to consider legislation indicating the city's support of the police.

"(Our police) need to know (city) leadership has their back," he said. "If we have to kick a door in to get to a drug dealer and he pulls a gun (and) we have to pull the trigger to save a police officer's life, (they need to know) they aren't going to jail afterward."

Elmore said council's ordinance declaring racism a health crisis and modeled after a similar declaration by Franklin County Public Health was meant to address what is occurring at a national level concerning policing and was "not specific to Whitehall."

Elmore offered her support of Whitehall police, as did fellow council member Chris Rodriguez.

"You folks are the finest and will always have my support," Rodriguez said.

Crispen told council members if any officers acted in a manner that was explicitly racist, that officer would answer to him before anyone else.

As far as any implicit bias, Crispen said, it is common to all humans but nevertheless must be addressed.

Concerning minorities employed by the Whitehall Division of Police, Crispen said, the department needs greater diversity, but the required civil-service testing and the hiring list it generates, which has not included minority candidates, is outside the purview of the police department.

That's something he asked City Council to find a way to rectify.

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo