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Chief Mendez discusses law enforcement with Mayor Sorace at Hourglass forum (video)

Lancaster Police Chief Richard Mendez makes a comment during the Hourglass First Friday Forum at the Ware Center on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Lancaster Police Chief’s Richard Mendez’ says one of his favorite adages is “Be the change you want to see.”

Any time you come up through the ranks of an organization, you see things you think you should be changed, Mendez said during his joint appearance with Mayor Danene Sorace at the Hourglass’ Foundation’s First Friday Forum. Being chief has given him that opportunity and it has been rewarding, he said.

Mendez became Lancaster’s interim chief last May following the resignation of his predecessor, Chief John Bey. He was sworn in as permanent chief two months later and is the first Latino to lead the bureau.

The forum was formatted as an interview of Mendez by the mayor, followed by a Q&A. The duo discussed crime trends, law enforcement policy and how police work fits into broader efforts by City Hall and civic organizations to build community.

Hourglass member Mike Rowen said he was impressed at Mendez’ emphasis on “we,” rather than “I,” in his responses.

Here are five takeaways:

1. It wasn’t his first career choice

Mendez never set out to be a police officer in the first place, let alone police chief. As a teenager, he thought he’d like to be an artist, until he attended art school and bristled at being told what to do and how to do it. He was in his early 20s and working at an auto dealership when he took the police candidacy exam at the suggestion of a relative.

It’s exciting to be Lancaster’s first Hispanic police chief, he said, but even more significant, in his view, is being a lifelong Lancastrian, a McCaskey High School graduate born and raised in the Southeast. For many city residents, the chief is someone they grew up with.

Despite his parents’ hard work, the family was poor, Mendez said. In the winter, they kept the oven door open for heat, and to this day when he pours cereal into a bowl, he finds himself inspecting it for cockroaches before taking a spoonful.

2. The police are following Lancaster’s equity commitments

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in early 2020, Lancaster published a list of commitments to racial equity. The majority had to do with the police department, and Sorace said the document reflected work that was already well under way.

Those commitments — governing use of force, de-escalation and crisis intervention training and other policies — have been implemented, she said. Still in process is a top-to-bottom policy review that, among other things, supports the bureau’s efforts to secure accreditation from the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association.

All police staff have completed trauma-informed training through a partnership between City Hall and Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health. They are the first department to complete the training; all departments eventually will.

The training can help police understand and respond better to behaviors they encounter on the job. Additionally, it has internal benefits, Mendez said: It enhances self-awareness and mental health and that will make for better police, he said.

Police Sgt. Donald Morant offers a high-five to a young city resident. (Source: City of Lancaster)

Wanted: More recruits

Lancaster’s police roster is down about 20 officers, Chief Richard Mendez said during Mayor Danene Sorace’s State of the Union address.

The chief and mayor renewed their recruiting pitch at the Hourglass forum, encouraging people to refer anyone they know who might be interested to the department’s careers website.

“Do it!” the mayor said. “We want them.”

While the department is hoping to attract more recruits from within city limits, residents throughout Lancaster County and any adjacent Pennsylvania county are eligible. Mendez said his team is looking to work with a marketing firm and is exploring ideas such as putting QR codes for the website on police cruisers.

The police cadet program remains active, although recruiting participants for that, too, has been a challenge, he said.

3. Accreditation will support the Vision Zero traffic safety program

Lancaster recently received a $12.7 million federal grant for Vision Zero, its initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries. The grant will pay for intersection improvements, safety education and more.

It will pay for red light cameras to catch speeders, too, but only cities with accredited police departments are allowed to install them. Getting the cameras is “super important,” Sorace said.

Adriana Atencio, executive director of The Common Wheel bicycle shop and co-op, asked how the department plans to protect pedestrians, cyclists and other “vulnerable road users,” given the prevalence of speeding and unsafe driving in the city, including on the part of police.

A unit on traffic law and traffic safety is part of officers’ mandated training, Mendez said. Additionally, the department is expanding bike patrols, which will give more officers a first-person perspective on the riding experience.

Hourglass Executive Director Diana Martin, left, introduces Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace and Police Chief Richard Mendez at the First Friday Forum on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

4. Illegal guns are a major concern

A worrisome spate of shootings toward the end of the year notwithstanding, Lancaster city saw just six homicides in 2022, versus 21 in York. Still, shootings and illegal guns are a problem everywhere and “we’re not immune,” Mendez said.

In 2022, Lancaster police seized 115 illegal firearms, he said. Twenty-seven juveniles were arrested with illegal guns in their possession — something you simply didn’t see two decades ago, Mendez said.

He warned about ghost guns, untraceable weapons assembled out of parts bought online. Lancaster police recovered nine of them last year.

Drug and gang activity are ongoing concerns, Mendez said. The gang picture is ever-changing, as new groups of young people organize and old groups peter out. Detectives have “a pretty good grasp” on what’s going on, he said.

As for drugs, crack is no longer the issue it was two decades ago, but there’s a lot of fentanyl and other opioids coming into the city, Mendez said. Fentanyl is especially problematic because it’s so deadly: Officers are regularly reviving overdose victims with Naloxone, he said.

5. It takes the whole community

No jurisdiction can “police its way out” of drugs, shootings and other social problems, Mendez said: It takes a concerted effort on everyone’s part.

The chief said he encourages police to walk or bike their beats and check in at barbershops, corner bodegas and other gathering spots.

“The car can be a barrier,” he said.

Lancaster’s Community Police Working Group continues to meet monthly, he said. The bureau’s community engagement team, meanwhile, recently completed some staff changes and has just started reaching out to businesses and neighborhood organizations.

The city’s Department of Neighborhood Engagement is part of the work, Sorace said. Last summer, the city and community partners organized an intervention focusing on a group of youths who were armed and threatening trouble. It was done quietly, and few people knew about it, but it was effective, she said.