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‘It can’t just be one person at the top’ Police chief details department’s projects, upcoming goals

“In regard to policing the city, 2020 has been an extremely weird year,” said Bethlehem Police Chief Michelle Kott during her first interview with the Press since taking command in October. “It’s been odd because not as many people have been out. Obviously we didn’t have Musikfest, Celticfest, all the other festivals and events that we have in the city that bring hundreds of thousands of people a year.

“Our officers are not having as many citizen contacts as we normally would … however, for 2020 we responded to 225-250 medical calls involving COVID-positive patients. So just because the crowds and traffic and large events aren’t there doesn’t mean it’s a chance for us to sit back on our laurels and take it easy.

“I want COVID to go away. My heart is breaking for all the businesses and restaurants and all the individuals in the city that have been affected by the virus. They’ve been laid off or lost their jobs … If COVID has done nothing else, it’s shown us that we’re not as invincible as we thought. It’s really showing how we need each other. I’m really curious to see when our community can start bouncing back from this emotionally, mentally and fiscally.”

Kott emphasized, as she did during her nomination and confirmation, that community engagement is imperative for the department to build and maintain a trusting relationship with the public. Whether face-to-face, Zoom or other virtual platforms, police are reaching out as often and safely as possible.

Additionally, the department is collaborating with the Health Bureau to help residents that officers come into contact with to get in touch with resources and services that could potentially prevent future police contact or help them navigate an issue they are facing, whether ood insecurity, homelessness, mental health issuesor substance abuse. Kott would like to expand this relationship long-term, as it helps everyone involved.

Social work is particularly important now, Kott said, as we grapple with the ramifications of prolonged quarantine. “I think this is going to require communities to come together and put people in touch with services to help them get through this hard time.”

As for the department, Kott was upbeat. “I’m very, very pleased and happy with the teamwork and the collaborative efforts … all the way down to the officers, to work together to provide the best level of service to the community,” she said, adding a key component to the cohesion she seeks is working with supervisors regularly, rather than delegating from on high. “It can’t just be one person at the top taking power out of supervisors’ hands. It’s a form of succession planning and trying to build the next upcoming leaders of the Bethlehem Police Department.”

That is partially because she worries about losing institutional memory due to longtime officer retirements. Young officers have a lot of enthusiasm, Kott said, but it’s hard to make up for a loss of decades of experience. Thus, she is focusing on recruitment and mentorships and how they might also benefit through broadened community relations.

“We’re taking a good look at how we conduct business, whether it be efficiency or modes of communication, not only with the community but within the department. Implementing more meetings with the command staff. Something that I think we can improve upon is getting information out. We need to get information out to the citizens so they’re better informed about what’s going on in their communities and I think a valuable way to do that is to have a central contact, like a public information officer.” That position, she said, fell by the wayside some time ago due to the aforementioned retirements.

But outreach isn’t limited the city residents. “I feel that the Lehigh Valley is a metro area where you have so many people who may live in Easton but work in Bethlehem or who live in Emmaus but work in Allentown. I really wanted to start reaching out to the other police chiefs in the valley and I formed a very good friendship with Chief [Glen] Granitz from the Allentown Police Department and we spoke about some collaborative efforts that we can do in the future.”

Kott also participates in the Mayor’s Advisory Board and NAACP monthly meetings to address various forms of systemic racism through police reform, education and healthcare and on a community engagement board, serving on the LGBTQ subcommittee.

One thing impeding the transition to a fully open and friendly police department is accessibility: She would love a new, welcoming facility with space for meetings and public safety classes for community members, and a less dismal interview area. The department has crouched in city hall’s basement for over 15 years, a situation which was supposed to be temporary, but which she sadly admits is not likely to change any time soon.

Lack of a modern public facility notwithstanding, Kott succinctly summarized her holistic approach to policing and community, evident throughout the interview, by declaring with purpose and certainty, “Everybody wins if we work together.”

“We're taking a good look at how we conduct business, whether it be efficiency or modes of communication, not only with the community but within the department.” Michelle Kott Bethlehem Police Chief