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Taking it to the streets: Lower Swatara police start foot patrols in an effort to engage residents

By Laura Hayes

laurahayes@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 3/20/19

Don’t be alarmed if you see Lower Swatara Police Department officers walking around your neighborhood.

For the past couple of weeks, the department has started doing foot patrols.

This …

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Taking it to the streets: Lower Swatara police start foot patrols in an effort to engage residents

Posted

Don’t be alarmed if you see Lower Swatara Police Department officers walking around your neighborhood.

For the past couple of weeks, the department has started doing foot patrols.

This is one of several new initiatives started by new Police Chief Jeff Vargo, also including traffic patrols targeting aggressive drivers and seatbelt violations.

“I believe in good, old-fashioned police work — officers getting out of their car and engaging citizens and having a conversation with township residents to hear some concerns they may be having in their neighborhood where citizens may not feel comfortable coming to the police station to report issues they may be having in their lives,” Vargo said.

The foot patrols are an opportunity for citizens and officers to get to know each other, he said.

Growing up, Vargo said, he saw police walking around his neighborhood.

“Truthfully, that’s what inspired me to become a police officer,” Vargo said.

The Press & Journal tagged along with Lower Swatara Officer Jason Heckendorn on his foot patrol through Shope Gardens on Feb. 22.

After parking his squad car at the baseball diamond, Heckendorn walked through the neighborhood, stopping to  talk to residents who happened to be outside. They shared where they were headed — work or the store — or talked about how they changed their outdoor lightbulbs to green to honor veterans.

Heckendorn said the officers try to interact with residents or keep an eye out for suspicious activity. After one of the recent snowfalls, the police helped out a woman shoveling her driveway.

“Just helping people like that shows we’re more than just here to arrest people. We want to interact with the community,” Heckendorn said.

He echoed Vargo’s sentiments that the foot patrols helped to develop a trusting relationship between the community and its officers.

As of early March, Heckendorn had done around six foot patrols in the township. With 13 years with the department, Heckendorn said this is the first time they have specifically gone out on foot patrols.

In some ways, Vargo said, the officers have been doing it all along.

“They’ve always gotten out of their cars and walked,” Vargo said.

He said he asked them to take it one step further — if an officer sees someone in their driveway or walking to get out and introduce themselves. The foot patrol is being done during all shifts.

Vargo asked the officers to do a foot patrol once a shift and either pick their choice of a neighborhood or one that is experiencing a higher level of incidents.

The officers are also close to their cars if it is necessary to go on another call quickly.

Soon, he plans to have the officers patrolling on bikes as well, and create baseball cards with the officers’ information to hand out.

“They can sleep soundly at night knowing that their neighborhoods are being patrolled on foot, in cars [and] in the coming months out on bikes,” Vargo said.

The commissioners commended Vargo’s efforts during the Feb. 20 meeting.

“Big compliment to the chief of the police,” Commissioner Michael Davies said.

People can be alarmed when they see police in their neighborhood, but people warmed to the idea, he said.

“Great idea. Unusual time of year to start it, but I was appreciative that you didn’t feel that you needed to wait for warm weather to do it. I think it was a much needed change,” Davies said.

The township police department also plans to participate in two statewide campaigns through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration called “Buckle Up” and “Aggressive Driving.”

Vargo introduced the programs during the Feb. 6 Board of Commissioners meeting, describing them as traffic safety initiatives.

According to Jeff Bowman, who is the Region Two law enforcement liaison with the Highway Safety Network, departments are eligible for the program based off the crash data reported to the state.

He said 215 departments throughout the state participate in the aggressive driving program, and 350 departments participate in Buckle Up.

The programs are fully grant funded, and Bowman estimated that between grants for both Buckle Up and Aggressive Driving, Lower Swatara would receive at least $10,000.

Bowman said it’s up to the police department how to run the traffic detail. Vargo and the officers plan to look at statistics to identify where the best places would be to patrol.

“When people see a police car, no matter what they’re doing, they slow down and pay attention,” Bowman said.

Enforcement takes place during specific times of the year. Bowman said the aggressive driving program takes place from October to November, March to April and July to October. Buckle Up mobilizations take place during Memorial Day and Thanksgiving, and Bowman said departments also can apply to target child passenger safety in September and teens in October.

People might believe that police issue traffic tickets to meet a quota, Bowman said. However, he explained that the purpose is to reduce traffic problems.

“It all comes back to the safety of the motoring public and the public at large,” Bowman said.

During the Feb. 6 meeting, Vargo said they would report the number of contacts they make with drivers to the state, adding that there wasn’t a requirement for how many stops they made.

“I believe any increase of police presence and enforcement has a positive impact,” Vargo said in an interview.