Driven by spikes in aggravated assaults and homicides, Pennsylvania has the highest violent crime rate of any state in the Northeast, which climbed 27.1% from 2019 to 2020, according to FBI data. No other state reported a greater year-over-year increase in violence for that same period.
Local police chiefs, prosecutors, human trafficking victim advocates, and key community groups confirmed at a Senate Majority Policy Committee hearing in East Hempfield Township last week that this alarming statewide trend is happening right here in Lancaster County, too.
Gathering for the second in a series of statewide hearings on crime and public safety, testifiers from local police departments, the Lancaster District Attorney’s office, SecondChance PA, NorthStar Initiative (NSI), and more delivered testimony to the committee about the disturbing increase in criminal activity they’re seeing in their communities.
Increased juvenile crime rates, unrelenting opioid and mental health related crimes, and a disturbing concentration of incidents of human trafficking are happening in the midst of an extreme hiring crisis that’s leaving police departments understaffed and without the resources they need to keep our communities safe.
According to NSI, a local organization that supports women who are survivors of domestic sex trafficking, the major highways that run through our county coupled with a bustling tourism industry with multiple hotels along those highways make our area susceptible to this heinous crime.
Even more distressing, fifteen is the average age of a trafficking victim, and 46 percent of NSI’s survivors are trafficked by a member of their own family.
To create a proactive approach to combatting human trafficking, local leaders formed the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Human Trafficking Task Force earlier this year. The Task Force operates across jurisdictional boundaries to coordinate resources and conduct comprehensive undercover operations using a victim-centered approach. Recently, they arrested fourteen traffickers in a single sting.
While the success of the Task Force is certainly something to be celebrated, it’s important to remember that human trafficking often leads to other criminal activity such as gang violence, drug trafficking operations, organized criminal empires, and more. With local crime rates rising and a hiring crisis that’s worsening by the day, our officers need all the help they can get.
Chief Lisa Layden from the West Hempfield Township Police Department testified that the candidate pool for prospective officers has decreased by approximately 80 to 90 percent in the last 30 years. An increasingly negative image of policing among younger generations fueled by biased media coverage and anti-police activists has made attracting exceptional officer candidates a nightmare that will only worsen as the state faces a looming wave of senior officer retirements.
And yet, at a time when heinous crimes are increasing at an alarming rate and recruitment and retention of high-quality police officers is at an all-time low, interest groups continue to call to defund the police. I think these disturbing statistics tell us that we need to be doing the exact opposite; we should be investing in programs that help to keep our communities safe, not stripping police departments of the limited resources they have now.
Testifiers at the hearing told us that the lack of support our police officers experienced in the last few years is taking a toll. Officers are hesitant and even afraid to fully engage in policing as many feel they do not have the public’s trust and respect. When forced to make split-second decisions, there is more doubt than ever before, and that can cost lives.
Make no mistake, the popularity of anti-police rhetoric is hurting victims of violent crimes by weakening the resources available to stop criminals.
Certainly, there are legislative solutions to the hiring crisis, and with input from local police chiefs and stakeholders, proposals to reverse this trend are in the works. But even the best, well-crafted piece of legislation can’t change culture. And unfortunately, the “Defund the Police” movement and the accompanying anti-police rhetoric that paints all cops as belonging to a racist, law-skirting, good-ole-boys club has become ingrained in our culture, particularly among younger generations. And it is only fanning the flames of an already diminishing officer complement.
At the end of the day, we all share the same desire to feel safe in our homes and communities; to protect our families and loved ones from becoming victims of violent crimes like assault, rape, and human trafficking. A strong police force that is well trained, compassionate, and able to respond swiftly and appropriately in high-stress situations can help us achieve that goal. I intend to continue fighting to ensure that law enforcement officers get the support and resources they need to safely protect Pennsylvanians.