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Youth violence incidents concerning council

Ickes: Restore police force pre-COVID levels

Shootings by teens in April and June and a murder allegedly committed by a teen last year led a City Council member to call for discussion of the violence, in hopes of putting a stop to it.

That suggestion led another council member to seek restoration of the Police Department’s pre-pandemic complement of 66 officers — a number that council reduced by four this year to help it avoid a tax increase.

“Two instances in two months involving juveniles’ use of firearms,” said Councilman Bruce Kelley. “A year ago, a horrible murder involving a juvenile.”

It’s time to talk “in depth” about what may be going on and to get the perspective of new Police Chief Joe Merrill on the situation, Kelley said.

“It’s imperative to get back to the pre-COVID (officer) numbers,” Councilman Jesse Ickes said.

More police on the streets might help prevent situations that threaten to boil over into violence from escalating, Ickes and Kelley suggested.

Because of retirements, the time it takes to hire and train officers and limitations on training opportunities, there are currently only 58 officers on the department’s roster — eight down from the pre-pandemic budgeted level, according to officials.

The city is moving to bring the number to the currently budgeted 62, with two candidates in training for Act 120 certifications at Harrisburg Area Community College and two more scheduled to take the next class there in September, according to City Manager Omar Strohm.

The city can probably use a portion of the $39 million it’s getting through the American Rescue Plan to pay for restoring the pre-pandemic budgeted number, because council cut the roster partly in anticipation of reduced revenues due to COVID-19, according to Strohm.

Municipalities can use ARP money to “reconstitute a workforce that may have been diminished as a result of the pandemic,” Strohm said.

Nothing has been decided yet, however — although there may be “good reason to think that it is not a bad idea to staff the police department like it was,” Strohm said.

Reports of violence among young people is “startling,” Strohm said.

Verbal arguments and fistfights among youths are one thing, but “when I see juveniles brandishing guns and shooting, it makes me nervous,” Kelley said.

The city should make “every effort” to restore the pre-pandemic roster number, he said.

But Merrill’s observations are necessary, to see if the chief agrees the perceived increase in youth violence is real, to see how serious he thinks the problem is and to get his opinion on officer staffing levels, Kelley said.

Everyone on council wants to support the department and to give it the help it needs, according to Kelley.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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