Chambersburg Police Chief Ron Camacho is here to help

CHAMBERSBURG – Being a police officer these days is not the glitz and glamour you see on television.

You face life-and-death situations one day and have paperwork to complete the next.

You work hard to handle suspects with mental health challenges and patch up domestic disputes – issues that are often times way outside your pay grade.

You deal with distrust and outright suspicion from the public – much of which is unfounded to you as an individual officer.

In Chambersburg, we are incredibly lucky to have Police Chief Ron Camacho at the helm.

Chief Camacho is working hard to bridge the gaps in information and communication between the Chambersburg Police Department and the community.

Chief Camacho spoke with First News this morning and in his own words gave listeners a glimpse of what it’s like in Chambersburg and the hope we have for the future.

“We’ve done a lot of hard work over the last five years with setting the table as far as trust is concerned with the community,” Camacho said. “We work very, very hard engaging with many sectors of the Chambersburg community to make sure that we have trust.”

A lot of it is about evolution.

“Not all police departments are created the same,” Camacho said. “Many of us were trying to do the right thing. We’re evolving and changing for the better. I think it’s important for leaders – police leaders – to show that to the public.”

When he received questions about the eight policy changes that the Black Lives Matter movement wanted to see enforced, Camacho put an article on the Crime Watch page to talk about how Chambersburg was already implementing the policies.

Diversity training? It’s being done. Diversify the department? It’s being done.

“And we were doing them before COVID, before protests came in,” Camacho said. “That’s what progressive, modern departments do. They’re constantly evolving, constantly getting better. If not, in today’s day and age, you’re going to be hurting.”

Chambersburg Police Department is one of ten departments in the state that has a mental health co-responder on board. Jen Ewing helps the department handle mental health concerns.

“Our guys are really good at dealing with that because they’ve been trained they and have a lot of experience,” Camacho said. “She comes along and helps us, helps us find the resources that we need to get help for these people. Is she going by herself on a 911 call? No. We’re not at that level yet. I think that’s foolish at this point in time.”

Chief Camacho was asked to come to Harrisburg last year to discuss how he handles the situations he sees.

“I was honored to be asked to go up there and speak,” he said. “I can tell you that the things that I talked about…that’s been listened to by the Pennsylvania Chief’s Association. We have a great relationship with them. Sometimes somebody might think I’m beating my drum all the time and that’s not the case. When I go on the radio or when I go on a show to talk, it’s about getting information out to help other police departments or the community. I really just want to get information out and help people.”

Camacho is very open in talking about what he has found that works, but change often doesn’t come with the snap of a finger. It’s going to take time.

Camacho gave an example where about eight months ago, two Chambersburg police officers were called to one of the hospitals in the area and they were dealing with someone who had major mental health issues.

Ewing was also there, but the Chambersburg police officers were so well-trained, they managed to calm the individual down and got him to agree to go to crisis.

“My guys spent over an hour talking with him, calming him down, and getting him to do the right thing,” Camacho said. “It was so impressive that the CFO of that hospital called me personally to say, ‘Wow. I’ve never seen that before. That was great. Keep up the good work. I’m proud of my guys for understanding that.”

Camacho worked for 18 years in York city. At the time, there wasn’t this kind of training and there wouldn’t have been the time to work through these mental health crises.

And those scenes can turn violent quickly – officers need to be trained and ready to anticipate anything.

“The pendulum swings,” Camacho said. “We’ve seen the pendulum swinging where it’s like defund the police and take money away from them and we’re seeing what happens with that. We’re seeing crime shoot up through the roof. We’re seeing an exodus of businesses and people from those places. And now it’s kind of swinging a little bit more to the middle. I think training is where we need to focus.”

Camacho is so thrilled to have the Chambersburg borough council, borough manager and mayor all understand what he needs.

“We’ve been very blessed here,” he said. “We’re an incredibly well-trained department. Good training can alleviate many, many problems.”

Camacho addressed the recent issue of the taser versus the gun that came up in Minnesota.

“The first tasers that came out looked very different,” Camacho said. “Then they got smaller, more gun-like. Now we’re going back to making them yellow, which I think is a good idea. I don’t think a taser feels like a gun. There’s a very different feel to it. There’s a very different weight to it. It’s very light. The other thing is where that’s placed. Policy should have it placed where it’s not on the same side as your weapon. Again, a lot of that comes to training and experience.”

Camacho was actually on the SWAT team in York and the training was so realistic when he actually experienced a shooting, he didn’t panic because he felt like he was back in training.

Changes in the job over time can be surprising.

“When I first started in 1995, if you would have told me in 2010 that we would be trained on how to give Narcan, I would have told you you were crazy,” Camacho said. “We all have torniquettes and multiple touriquets and we’re experts in stopping bleeding right at the spot. These are things that weren’t taught to us. We were taught basic first-aid and that was it. We’ve now become mini-experts in dealing with mental health persons. That was never something that was on my training schedule when I was a rookie officer.”

What about the psychological impact on police officers when they hear from the media and citizens that they are racist because of the narrative that’s out there?  

“What we’re doing here is building a relationship with the community to make it the strongest we can to build that trust with the community so that that can lessen some of these things that happen in other places,” Camacho said. “I think some of the problems that are happening in other places is that total lack of trust where I don’t trust you, you don’t’ trust me and now we have to solve this complicated problem together.”

Camacho believes the community and police department need to understand one another and not be so quick to label.

“Part of my mandate here over the last couple of years has been, ‘Hey that happened over there, it’s not really happening in Chambersburg.’ We’re doing things very, very differently here. The media hasn’t helped. They’ve inflamed a lot of situations.”

Camacho has some army buddies that were getting on him about the taser situation, but he took the time to talk to them.

“I feel that that’s my duty to answer those questions as intelligently as I can and educate him just like I’m doing that with just about anybody that I run into.”

In fact, one day during the protests in Chambersburg where there were 350 people downtown, Camacho talked to a gentleman for over an hour.

“Maybe that guy just took that information and it just went in one ear and out the other,” Camacho said. “Maybe I made a difference. Maybe he kind of said, ‘Ah ha. I understand.’ And then that influenced him on how he would deal with the police in the future.”

Regardless of the outcome, our Chief of Police will take the time and he maintains an open-door policy to anyone with questions at any time.

“I’m working very hard on how my guys deal with the public,” Camacho said. “We have some pretty high standards. I believe in making sure we treat everybody, everybody, with the same respect.”

And he’s gotten positive feedback from the community.

“I’m not done,” Camacho said. “I’m continually evolving. Continually working. Continually looking for that other point of view that maybe I haven’t considered and I think that’s what is needed from police leadership all over the United States.”

So the fact that other parts of the country aren’t having the same success, is it because the other cities are just too big?

“I think there are large communities that have developed relationships, good positive relationships, so to me it’s not necessarily about size,” Camacho said.

Police culture can be very had to change, especially when it feels like someone from above is saying it has to change and it feels like you’re doing it wrong.

“We don’t come into this profession to do bad,” Camacho said. “We come into this profession to do good. It hurts us when somebody hurts our profession with some unprofessional or corrupt practices.”

In Maryland, the sweeping changes to police reform could have huge impacts.

“Right now I think many of the officers there 10 years ago were telling their children yes this is a great profession, noble profession, which it still is, come you’re going to have a rewarding career, you’re going to make a difference,” Camacho said. “They might be telling their children now, don’t go into this profession. I just think it’s going to be harder and harder for us to recruit quality people to come into policing when you have a lot of these things against you.”

Camacho continued, “They’re solving a problem with a hammer where maybe a scalpel should be the tool that you use to affect good, positive change for the better that’s not going to affect police work and the quality of persons you get. Where guys that have 15 or 20 years in start leaving when they could have been there for 30 years and giving you all that experience.”

Camacho is so interested in maintaining a relationship with the community, he created a Chief’s Advisory Committee. It’s a group of nine people from very diverse backgrounds and they meet to talk about issues in Chambersburg.  

“It’s a group to advise me and give me that other viewpoint that I’m not seeing,” Camacho said. “A lot of time we’re in these echo chambers. We’re around the same people that say the same things and we need that outside point to kind of give us perspective. So that’s what I did. I recruited nine people to help me make decisions moving forward.”

Additionally, the advisory committee can be educated about the police department and become ambassadors for the community at large.

“I’m a positive person and sometimes I get beat up about being positive,” Camacho said. “I’ve worked in many different places. This is my third police department and I know how negative policing can be at times. I think we’re doing some really good stuff here. The community has responded and I think we’re on the right path. I really do. I’m open. You have some sort of an issue, let us know and we’re going to try to attack that issue the best way we can.”