Special Report: To serve, protect and reform

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WILKES-BARRE, LUZERNE COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU-TV) — The death of George Floyd Jr. in Minneapolis in May, while in police custody, sparked protests across the nation, with many lawmakers and civil rights advocates calling for reforms in law enforcement.

The phrase: “Defunding the Police” became a lighting rod for controversy that carried into the presidential campaign. There is no doubt about it. Law enforcement reform is still a hot button issue across the nation and right here in our region.

Everyone we spoke with, from law enforcement to lawmakers to civil rights advocates, agree that all sides have to come together and have an honest discussion before the nation can move forward.

Eyewitness News hit the streets with longtime Wilkes-Barre Police Officer Kirk Merchel. He and his fellow officers are fully aware about calls for law enforcement reform.

“As far as the climate in the country right now, it’s still another day for us to go out. It doesn’t change how we do our jobs. We may just be a little more cautious of people just in case something happens. There does seem to be so much violence across the country,” Merchel said.

The arrest and death of George Floyd Jr. on May 25th in Minneapolis sparked outrage across the nation and around the globe. His death was ruled a homicide and the officers involved in the incident are now facing charges.

Protests were held around the world calling for the end of the alleged use excessive force by police against Black suspects. Many say there is a lack of police accountability in the Floyd case and other high profile cases involving people of color.

“I, at one time, I used to take it personally and it took many years to realize that it’s not me that people would get mad at especially now when derogatory remarks are made about police. I don’t take that you are talking about Officer Kirk Merchel. They are talking about all they see is a person in a uniform,” Merchel said.

“Well, personally anytime anyone mentions defunding the police, defund does not mean disbanding or completely removing all funding,” Daryl Lewis, a spokesperson for Black Lives Matter in Wilkes-Barre, said.

Lewis helped organize protests in our region.

“It means to reallocate funds to more appropriate equipment and train the police for the duties that they’re asked to do and also considering employing additional titles like social workers to balance the tasks that the police are asked to perform,” Lewis said.

Lewis supports independent review boards to oversee police departments.

“Having an element like a civilian review board would cause civilians who are unaffiliated with the department to catch these complaints and instead of filing them, actually pursing them and encourage external investigation like I.A. to actually take up the cause or even the FBI,” Lewis said.

Ron Felton is president of the NAACP Wilkes-Barre chapter. He insists that a big problem in many communities is lack of communication between law enforcement and the community.

“You got to listen to the members of the community that are impacted by these issues with law enforcement,” Felton said.

State Representative Eddie Day Pashinski believes the nation is at a crossroads when it comes to law enforcement and its relations with members of the minority community.

“So there has to be an honest discussion. I’m looking at the training aspect. How are the officers trained? How are they selected? This is not an easy job. As I said many times until you put that police uniform on, you have no idea of the dangers they face every single day, every single night,” Pashinski said.

State Senator John Yudichak agrees that there needs to be more emphasis on improving relations between police officers and the people in our communities.

“We need to have training to make sure that there is proper training for police officers. It’s not about defunding the police. I’m opposed to defunding the police. We need to invest and make sure we have police officers out on the street. More police officers to keep our neighborhoods safe here in northeastern Pennsylvania,” Yudichak said.

The mayor of Wilkes-Barre, George Brown, formed a citizens advisory committee to oversee the police department. That seven-member committee will review policy and investigate any complaints filed against the department and then make recommendations to the mayor and police chief Joe Coffay about what might be done to resolves any issues that arise.

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