Staff sat down with Chief of Police John Frye (26 years with Cheltenham) and Officer Dave Sparango (24 years with Cheltenham) to learn more about the Department, Community Policing, and the HUB program.
Chief Frye: “The past year has been the hardest year of my career, by far. It started with the pandemic, when we put a lot of policies and procedures in place to mitigate exposures, protecting the public and our officers. While dealing with that, multiple incidences of civil unrest were challenging for law enforcement across the country. My challenge as the chief is to try to lead the department through that. As leaders, we need to do everything we can to make sure officers know that they are valued and appreciated, for the work they do, sacrifices they make, and commitment they show day in and day out, regardless of the challenges at hand.”
The Cheltenham Township Police Department (CTPD) has over a century-long history protecting and serving the community of Cheltenham. CTPD is among the busiest departments in Montgomery County, and calls for service have gone up in recent years. Despite the recent challenges, the men and women of the CTPD come to work every day, striving to do a greater good for every resident in the Township. True to the CTPD mission of “preserving the peace and protecting the lives, property, and rights of all persons through professional proactive policing strategies,” the police conduct their duties in the hopes of building relationships, trust, and rapport with the citizens they are committed to serving.
Chief Frye stated, “We have a long history and culture of service. The officers in this Township care about the people that live here. We want to be a proactive police department.” One way they do that is through Community Policing programs such as the HUB.
At its core, the HUB is a program by which the police department identifies a person on an upward swing toward crisis, as either the potential victim of crime or a potential perpetrator of crime, and links them with social services in order to prevent the crisis. For example, if a police officer has repeated contact with a community member and recognizes that person is showing signs of entering into crisis, the officer would refer that person to the HUB. That person’s circumstances would then be brought before the HUB’s regularly scheduled meeting of private and public social service providers and justice professionals. At that point, the appropriate social services are identified and the work commences to get that person the help they need.
Usually, there are anywhere between 15-25 different organizations that participate in the HUB – local police departments, public social service organizations like Montgomery County Mobile Crisis, Aging and Adult Services, Office of Children and Youth, Mental and Behavioral Health, and many others. Private organizations include homeless services, drug and alcohol treatment facilities, and mental health professionals. There are a wide range of services available to try and get the best services available to help people. CTPD first participated in the HUB in July 2020, and since then, has helped over 30 people get connected with vital social services before they find themselves in a full-blown crisis.
Though times of crisis can be a sensitive topic and vulnerable individuals may be hesitant to get help, Officer Sparango advises, “Please take that initial first step and call me (215-885-1600 ext. 971) or email me ([email protected]). It could be the difference someone needs. If you or a loved one is in crisis, call 911. One of our officers will respond, assess the situation, and point you in the right direction. Our officers come to work every day to help people. It’s who we are, and we have found that happiness is found through serving others.”
For Officer Sparango, Community Policing programs like the HUB strike a special chord, because they reflect his own reason for pursuing a career in law enforcement. After receiving words of encouragement from an officer as a teen, he knew he wanted to be a police officer. For Chief Frye, it ran in the family. His father was a police officer in Philadelphia, and he always respected law enforcement as a noble profession. For those who strive to be good leaders, and like their work environment to have some variety, the job is a perfect fit. Chief loves that the job is different every day, and he’s constantly learning through dealing with different challenges.
The two would like the public, and anyone interested in joining the ranks, to know that despite the challenges, it is a desirable job – a job of service.
Chief states that due to recent events, morale is down in the police force, and they are seeing smaller fields of interested candidates taking the Montgomery County Consortium Police Exam each year (300-400 compared to over 1200 twenty years ago). One thing Cheltenham has done to try to increase the pool of eligible candidates is to eliminate ACT 120, waiving the requirement that a candidate have already graduated from police academy before taking the test. CTPD conducts a thorough hiring and vetting process, which continues into an officer’s field training program. The excellent training and supervision new officers constantly receive ensures that the community-centric culture continues in Cheltenham.
Officer Sparango said, “We hire people who genuinely care about other people. When it comes down to it, an interaction between an officer and citizen is the most important thing. Civil unrest is hard because we've worked to develop relationships with our residents. We want our community to know we wouldn’t allow the incidents making headlines across the country to happen here. We understand this community and its diversity. We embrace it. We love it! Diversity is celebrated here, and I have faith in the cops that work here.”
For officers, the care shown in their interactions directly reflects the values of the CTPD. Chief Frye added, “A lot of interactions are during our citizens’ worst times. How we handle those moments dictate how they feel about our Department.” He says that in his 26 years with Cheltenham PD, the community has always been very supportive of the police. The Department put out a Performance Survey to the community last June, and the overwhelming response from residents was positive.
Because the CTPD places such a high value on creating a good rapport with the public, it’s taken a toll on the Department to be unable to have their usual community events due to COVID-19. Community Policing has never been more important, and the Department is looking forward to getting back to what it does best - interacting with the community.
Chief Frye also believes in the importance the Department places on training. They are constantly looking for more training, new training, and are retraining on material they already know. In practice, this helps to make sure officers are prepared and equipped to provide a professional police service.
First accredited in 2012, the Cheltenham Township Police Department has maintained this status with the Pennsylvania Law Enforcement Accreditation Commission (PLEAC). Accreditation shows that Cheltenham Police are following best practices, policies, and procedures to ensure the highest professionalism in their police services, and it is renewed every 3 years.
Officer Sparango: “Not only have we been completing de-escalation training for years, our cops on the street USE it and are very good at it, because it benefits us just as much as it benefits the person we’re interacting with. All the training we go through, we apply it to real world situations.” Chief Frye says that applying their training techniques has resulted in a number of tense incidents ending with a peaceful resolution when they could have ended much differently.
The Department will also implement body-worn cameras at the end of the month. The Department began looking into the cameras 3-4 years ago, starting with research and the budget planning processes. The policy for the cameras meets accreditation standards, and was developed with the input of the Cheltenham community and commissioners, as well as stakeholders including the Cheltenham NAACP, PA Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD), and Montgomery County District Attorney. When officers arrive back to the parking lot, the data automatically transfers to servers and is available to review. There is no way for an officer to delete body camera footage. The officers are all in favor of the measure of extra transparency and want the public to be able to see what they see.
Though in earlier years, the public was taught not to call 911 unless it’s an emergency, now the Police would like you to know that you may dial 911 for any situation in which you need them. “Don’t feel like you’re bothering us,” Officer Sparango said. “We don’t want somebody not to call because they feel their problem isn't important enough to call. Default to 911 and report whatever it is. That way, the call will be on record, and we’ll do what we can to help the situation.”
Despite national challenges, Chief Frye and Officer Sparango feel there is still a trust here in Cheltenham. CTPD gets calls from citizens of all walks of life, because they know they are going to be treated the right way. To Cheltenham Police, the commitment to protect and serve means: “We have to protect everybody equally. We haven't given up. There is no giving up.”