The Bethlehem Police Department now has a patrol branch, administration branch and the new and improved support services unit branch. The changes went into effect on March 3, 2021. (Jessica Mellon/B&W Staff)

Bethlehem Police Department introduces support unit in an effort to strengthen community relations

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On March 2, Bethlehem City Council convened for an informational meeting to discuss Bethlehem Police Department’s proposed “reorganization and commitment to the community” plan, which went into effect on March 3.

Police Chief Michelle Kott opened the meeting by outlining the department’s plan to reorganize. Kott said the department’s personnel is their “great asset” and she believes reallocating these personnel will better support the goals of the department, criminal deterrence detection and apprehension, and enhance the relationships between personnel and the community.

“Units have been realigned under a more efficient command structure,” Kott said. “Supervisory and officer positions have been reassigned and focus has been given to addressing the needs of the community.”

BPD has three branches: patrol, administration and the new and improved support services unit.

The support services unit is composed of “non-sworn” officers who do not carry weapons and do not have the power to arrest, as opposed to patrol officers who do.

The support services division of the department will include three focus units: criminal investigations, community services, and traffic and school safety, each led by a lieutenant. The division will see the most significant changes under the reorganization.

“Support services reorganizes non-patrol functions into a focused team of officers who have the time, flexibility and ability to investigate crime and interact with the community beyond the scope of patrol division,” Kott said.

Kott said in order to accomplish this structural change, two sergeant positions will be moved from other units, and an additional lieutenant position will be necessary.

This lieutenant will lead the community services division, which will focus on community engagement and building rapport between officers and community members.

“Units have been realigned under a more efficient command structure. Supervisory and officer positions have been reassigned and focus has been given to addressing the needs of the community,” Kott said.

Deputy Police Chief Scott Meixell believes the reorganization will make sure the right personnel are handling the correct tasks and increase community engagement.

“We don’t want people buried in work to the point where they can’t get away from their desk, and getting away from their desk is ever important to speaking with the community and engaging with them,” Meixell said.

Although city council members seemed to support the reorganization, Councilwoman Olga Negron said patrol officers typically spend more time out in the community and raised questions about integrating support services for community outreach.

Kott clarified that community services officers would be partnering with patrol officers, getting the community familiar with many different officers.

She noted that the patrol unit includes younger officers due to recent retirements, and said more established community services officers would use this opportunity to acclimate the community with these new patrol officers.

“I believe that trust is so incredibly important, and that is why having those community officers out building that rapport and trust, then bringing those other officers in on foot, getting them out of the cars and having that face-to-face contact is huge,” Kott said.

Another concern Negron posed was regarding a budget increase. Kott said the costs of implementing this new structure will be absorbed by the department this year and said any new costs will be added to the budget next year.

Mayor Robert Donchez clarified for council members that the size of the department will not increase from its current 154 members, but it will be adding a traffic and school safety lieutenant position, increasing the 2022 police budget but absorbing certain responsibilities.

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