Public safety top goal for 2016, Mayor Papenfuse says

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HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Halfway through his first term of political office, Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse remains optimistic of the city's future in face of its violent present.

"The city is cleaning up its act. All the neighborhoods are getting cleaner," he says. "Now it's time to dream a little bigger."

Papenfuse's dream starts with a safer city. He says Harrisburg's overall crime rate fell in 2015, but its homicide rate is up. There were 19 homicides in 2015, and two already through one week of 2016.

He insists the city can be better, and announced on Friday at a round table discussion with local media that safety will be his top priority for the upcoming year.

How will that happen? It starts, the mayor says, with increased dialogue between Harrisburg Police and the community. Mayor Papenfuse got a sneak preview one day earlier, when five Harrisburg area students led a panel discussion on the biggest issues facing the city's youth, and what needs to happen to improve community relations.

"We need to constantly engage them with dialogue, but the youth need to seize their own destinies, as well," the Mayor said. "The mentors exist, the programs exist, the opportunities exist. We hear it again and again. The question is how do we connect the public to those opportunities?"

Mayor Papenfuse plans to increase police coverage across the city. Harrisburg will hire five new police officers in the coming weeks. The Mayor also plans to work them more, thanks to $250,000 in grants from the Community Block Development Grant he plans to use for police overtime.

"We’re going to put more police on the streets," Mayor Papenfuse says. "I'd much rather have our officers in our neighborhoods than at a show."

The show he is referring to is the Great American Outdoors Show, sponsored by the National Rifle Association and hosted each February at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex. In recent years, Harrisburg Police has supplied security for the event, which runs eight days and brings an estimated 200,000 people to the city.

However, Mayor Papenfuse pulled his police force for next month's event. He insists it's to increase patrol on Harrisburg's streets. Lars Dalseide, a spokesman for the NRA, feels otherwise.

"The Mayor is being disingenuous," he says.

The NRA is hosting the Outdoors Show in Harrisburg as part of a five year deal. Included in that deal, they agreed to award grants to groups in the city each year. Last year, the NRA gave the City of Harrisburg a new police cruiser worth $50,000. This year, however, the NRA decided to send its grant money to other groups within the city.

On top of that, Dalseide says, the Mayor tried to raise the price the NRA paid for Harrisburg's police security from $30 to $50 an hour. When they declined, Dalseide says, the Mayor pulled his men.

"While he’s saying right now he’d rather them work these high crime areas, in fact he would’ve been more than happy to have them work the show if we had met these extra demands," Dalseide said.

The NRA will use police forces from Dauphin County and other local municipalities as security for the event.

Meanwhile, the Mayor's tiff with the NRA isn't deterring his optimism for the upcoming year. In the face of a high homicide rate, he promised change for 2016.

"Mark my words, when we’re back here next year, hold me to it," he said. "You will see a safer city, more self-determined city, and growing city."