Meet Charles Roca, Allentown’s first Latino police chief

‘It’s important that we stay connected to our community. It’s not just the police. It’s the police with the community,’ Roca said.

By: - December 21, 2021 6:30 am

Allentown Police Chief Charles Roca stopped by to watch the annual Turkey Jam basketball tournament featuring fifth-graders from Central Elementary on Nov. 24 (Photo by Katherine Reinhard).

It’s the morning before Thanksgiving and Allentown Police Chief Charles Roca slides into his black SUV and drives a few blocks to Central Elementary.

Inside, the annual Turkey Jam basketball tournament is in full swing as fifth graders face-off against players from the semi-pro team Lehigh Valley Flight.

Roca nods hello and shakes hands as he takes a spot along a wall with a group of school resource officers who are there to cheer on the students.

“I wanted to stop by and say hello,” said Roca, who, at 45, became the city’s first Latino police chief in September. 

To Roca, making time to watch a youth game with his officers is just as critical as patrols on the streets in keeping the city safe.

 “It’s important that we stay connected to our community. It’s not just the police. It’s the police with the community,” Roca said.

Roca, the son of immigrants from Guatemala, sat down with the Pennsylvania Capital-Star to talk about his new job and his plans for shaping the police department in Pennsylvania’s third largest city.

At 54 percent, Latinos now make up the majority of the 121,252 residents in Allentown. The city just elected its first mayor of Latino descent – Democrat Matt Tuerk, the grandson of a Cuban immigrant and a Spanish speaker.

Roca has been described as the face of modern Allentown. Even so, he is humbled by his selection as police chief.

“I never thought I would sit in the chair of the chief,” he told the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.  “I’m honored, but that’s not my primary focus.”

A complicated time

Roca, who speaks Spanish, is taking over at a time when Blacks and Latinos in Allentown and across the U.S. are fed up with a system that funnels minorities into the criminal justice system at higher rates and labels students in underfunded schools as failures.

He said the video-captured death of George Floyd in May 2020 brought a magnifying glass on the need for change in all police departments.  

Complicating matters in Allentown is that it has had six police chiefs, including Roca, in six years.

In that same time span, Allentown paid more than $2 million to people who filed lawsuits alleging they were victims of excessive police force, according to an article in The Morning Call. 

In November, the city agreed to pay $400,000 to John Perez who, in a federal lawsuit, said police beat him in September 2018 and then tried to cover it up by arresting him, according to the article. 

The lawsuit alleged at least five officers watched as Perez was pushed to the ground.

The city admitted no fault in settling the suit.

Perez was acquitted of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest in February 2020 with the judge berating police and the District Attorney’s Office, The Morning Call reported.

Roca said he is working to bring stability to the department. That includes making sure his officers are properly trained for heated encounters.

Next year, he said, officers will undergo Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement training, which teaches officers how to intervene when fellow officers are harming others during an encounter. The city was accepted into the program a year ago. 

The idea behind the training is to create a culture that welcomes peer intervention, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Innovations in Community Safety, which provides training to police. 

In addition, Roca said, “All of our use-of-force incidents are reviewed by our Use of Force Review Board to ensure that it is within the policies and procedures of the department. On-going training will be emphasized so that we are operating under best practices in policing.”

Better communications

Besides training, Roca’s plan to bring stability involves improving communications with a distrustful public.

Roca was part of a team that restructured the department in January to include a captain of community outreach. The unit includes a youth and a community sergeant.

Among their tasks: Attend community meetings, youth games and other events in addition to serving as a contact point for concerns.

There also is a captain of training and special events, whose duties also includes interactions with the public.

Soon after he was named chief, Roca announced plans for a community initiative where various city groups would identify a liaison to facilitate the flow of information between police and the groups. The group held its first meeting on Dec. 7.  

“It’s important that we hear each other,” Roca said.

Roca said improving communications isn’t enough. It has to be backed up with success in keeping people safe and crime down.    

Having a full contingent of 228 sworn officers, which has been a historic struggle, would help.

“I can tell you that our officers are working hard each and every day,” he said. “I think we could use more.”

He is also using a statistical approach to make improvements to the department. 

His department is now working with the criminal justice department at Cedar Crest College in Allentown to do a data analysis of crisis intervention team calls to de-escalate situations involving people with mental health issues – calls that can lead to injury and death on both sides.

The college will analyze the number of such calls, the outcomes and what type of referrals, if any, are made,” Roca said. He also wants to look at the training the officers receive.

“It’s important to learn communication and de-escalation skills,” Roca said.

Cedar Crest College also is examining the number of officers on patrol and how it measures up with the volume and types of calls during their shifts. That could lead to a shift in deployment, he said, to better use resources.

Roca further wants to get the department accredited through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.

The group sets a standard for best practices that departments must meet to earn the coveted rating.  In Pennsylvania, the Abington, Baldwin, Bensalem, Bethlehem, Derry and Findley police departments have done so.  

“If there is something we aren’t doing correctly, then we’ll fix it,” he said.

One of Allentown’s own

Roca’s problem-solving approach to policing was forged in a household that stressed the importance of education to him and his sister Alison.

‘I think education is truly the key to economic prosperity,” he said.

His mother Alicia worked as a seamstress, being paid at piece rate. At night, Roca would help her attach tickets to her finished work.

“I thought it was fun,” he said.  

Bulldog strong, Roca played guard for the Dieruff High School football team then at Kings College in Wilkes-Barre, where he started all four years and met his wife, Christine. They now have three children and live in the city.

In the classroom, he began as a psychology major, but switched to criminal justice after taking an elective course with a former New York City police officer.

“Just the way he spoke and talked, I thought ‘I really like this major,’” Roca said.

After graduating in 1997, Roca took a job in an afterschool program that aimed to help kids deal with anger and stress.

That led him to the Lehigh County Probation Office where he helped adults prepare for the GED test. He then became a probation officer, carrying a caseload of 115.

Roca said it was a job with impact, recalling a time when a server in a restaurant came up to him. It was one of his former clients.

“He said, ‘Do you remember me? You changed my life,’” Roca said.

In 2002, after graduating from the Lackawanna Police Academy, Roca was assigned to the Allentown Police Department’s 3rd Platoon.

From there, Roca quickly built a body of experience on the vice unit, as a certified K9 handler and as a member of the crisis negotiation team. 

He became a sergeant in 2012 and eight years later was named assistant chief of operations. Along the way, he received four commendations of merit.

The police chief position unexpectedly opened up last spring when Glenn E. Granitz Jr., who had been on the job for less than two years, left to become chief in the tiny borough of West Reading. Granitz has since left that job.

Roca put his name in for the job and was chosen as interim chief. City council made the appointment permanent in a unanimous vote in September. 

Hopeful about the future

As a son of the city, Roca believes strongly in Allentown’s possibilities.

“I’m excited by the growth of Allentown,” he said. “Allentown has taught me that it is a resilient city.”

Roca hopes his efforts will eventually persuade residents that the police are on their side – and even temper calls for defunding the police. 

He doesn’t believe that people really want to cut funding, but instead want to feel the police are on their side.

“A primary job of the police is to arrest at the scene. It’s important to do that fairly,” he said.

Roca said he’ll feel successful when he finally wins the trust of the public. He believes that and his other measures will lead to a lower crime rate.

“It’s something that is going to take time. We aren’t there yet,” he said.

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