The quest for unity and harmony takes many forms. Grassroots organizations, predominantly the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, for 110 years, has led community advocacy for equality. No shortage of public sector agencies have sprung up in the last 65 years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to mandate fair treatment of all people in matters of employment, housing, transportation and access.
Within the past decade, and in no small part connected with the Obama administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, the Pennsylvania State Police has launched the Heritage Affairs Section under its Equality and Inclusion Office.
The inert sounding tag for the office could call to mind bureaucracy, if anything at all.
Even the man who manages the duty for the western half of the state admitted that, like most, he didn’t have a clue at first: “I didn’t know what it was either when I got the call from my colonel,” Trooper Aaron Allen said Saturday evening.
Allen brought an education in the Heritage Affairs office’s missions and responsibilities to an audience of almost 250 at the 33rd annual Freedom Fund Banquet of the Indiana County Branch of the NAACP at the Ramada Inn in White Township.
Heritage Affairs is a unit of specialists in investigations of hate crimes, tasked with looking at the perpetration of bias-related incidents, and prejudice-motivated crimes targeting victims because of their perceived or actual connection with certain social or demographic groups. They dig into the root causes, identifying not only what’s in the suspects’ minds but the atmosphere of the communities where hate crimes happen. And they work on the community level, with more that just local law enforcement agencies, to find ways to prevent them from happening again.
“We work with local, state and federal agencies when it’s regarding hate crimes or incidents of violence,” Allen said. “We oversee the investigation and make sure everything is completed and done the right way.”
Allen said he’s been with the state police for six years, served his first five years on patrol — his first three years based in Indiana — and the past year as a recruiter and community service officer, “which is where my passion is.”
“My passion is with … engaging a minority community. I think it needs to happen; law enforcement in general, we need to be in the community so you guys feel safe with us because of the era we now live in,” Allen said.
“Hate crimes a lot of the time are not reported to us. It’s very under-reported. That’s why we need to be in the community and make sure that everyone is OK with talking to police and law enforcement agencies.”
The hands-on unit under Heritage Affairs, Allen said, is the Tension Response Team. In a slide show during his program, he showed photos from incidents that the team has worked in the past few years.
A protest march following the shooting of unarmed black teenager Antwon Rose in East Pittsburgh.
The community backlash including gunfire at a roadside message board rented and programmed to flash messages of hate along Route 422 in Armstrong County.
The probe of gunfire at a theater in Washington County.
A community protest over a police shooting in State College.
All the photos were taken within the same week, Allen said.
He had a photo of people mourning the Tree of Life Synagogue mass shooting in Pittsburgh.
“It is the policy of the department to be committed to enhancement of community relations by using a proactive approach, meaning every community from here to Philadelphia. Doesn’t matter what it is, whether its preschool-age kids or college students. I’m inside the community and making sure we have a proactive approach so that when things happen, they know my face. They feel comfortable talking to me so we can make sure everything goes as planned.”
Heritage Affairs connects not only with local police but the agencies, such as the NAACP, “every community organization we can possibly get our hands on and work with, we want to do that to make sure community engagement works, and that everyone feels comfortable with us as law enforcement,” Allen said.
Their service extends to training and sharing expertise to local law enforcement and community groups. Troopers in the squad respond 24 hours a day, to every kind of incident, and they work to the finish.
“After that we submit our opinion on what needs to happen,” Allen said. “Whether we need to send someone through training, whether it’s an employee or a state trooper, and we have to make sure that our victims are taken care of as well, to make sure that everyone involved in the incident is taken care of and no one feels like nothing happened.”
The division’s education component includes sending officers for school assemblies. Allen said the police share resources through community events including helicopters, motorcycles, SERT team demonstrations, K-9 units and recruiters to answer questions.
Allen drew on the NAACP banquet’s theme to underscore the Heritage Affairs division’s mission.
“When we talk about ‘Together we rise, together we win,’ that’s what we’re all about,” Allen told NAACP members and supporters. “That’s what the Pennsylvania State Police is about. We need to work together, and that’s why we have this department within the state police. Heritage Affairs community service officers, recruiters; we make sure we work together, whether it’s with the NAACP or any other organization, to make sure that we’re better served as a community and so nothing gets worse.”
The NAACP chapter heard remarks as well from Indiana University of Pennsylvania journalism and political science student Kalyn Menifee, on the challenges she faces gaining acceptance not just as African-American or as a woman, but as being in the Gen Z age group.
Professor Wang Xi told of the cultural dynamics between African-Americans and China in the years following World War II and during the civil rights movement in the U.S.