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Harrisburg's new community-police engagement boss to focus on healing through mental health

Ana White takes over the newly formed department following the departure of Blake Lynch.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — In order to heal divisions which exist in Harrisburg, Mayor Eric Papenfuse says he's "reaching across the aisle."

Papenfuse has named Fiordaliza "Ana" White, 35, as the city's new director of Community Relations and Engagement. She will be in charge of connecting city residents to its police department. 

White will oversee a new department with seven community aides. Six have been hired thus far. They will represent the city and Harrisburg Bureau of Police in non-criminal activities and functions. She succeeds Blake Lynch, who is taking a marketing position at WITF after spending more than three years leading community-police efforts in the capital city.

White takes over directing those efforts at a time when Harrisburg's crime rate is 23 percent above the national average. According to the most recent statistics provided by the FBI in 2019, one in every 32 city residents were likely to be the victim of a violent or property based crime in a calendar year. 

The past 18 months has also highlighted the rift between the community and the police department. It's an issue seen in urban centers across the country since the death of George Floyd and the ensuing social rights and racial justice movements.

"There are divisions in Harrisburg that run very deep," Papenfuse said. "There's a lot of trauma and mistrust on all sides."

Papenfuse, though, trusts White, even if she campaigned against him during the 2021 mayoral primary cycle. Papenfuse was seeking a third term in office, while White supported his Democratic challenger, Otto Banks. 

Papenfuse lost to City Council President Wanda Williams by 45 votes. He has left the door open to a possible write-in campaign this November. He insists hiring White was not a political move.

White says her ability to move forward on Papenfuse's team comes from a nearly decade-long relationship which started when he knocked on her door during his first run for mayor in 2013. She says they started talking about community-driven issues last year, before the recent campaign cycle.

"I wanted to hire Ana a year ago," he said. "She knows the pulse of the city."

White calls their partnership historic.

"This is a testament of what can happen after those difficult conversations happen. It's not just ranting and disagreeing. It's about putting in the work afterwards," she said. 

White is a Harrisburg High School and Denison University graduate. Her background isn't in policing, but in mental health, and she plans to use that as her focus to better the community.

"I don't get too caught up in the statistics of how many shootings or crimes. They're all important. We need to figure out why they're happening in the first place," White said.

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