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Woman’s path to becoming police chief includes stop at York College

June 11, 2019
Lisa Layden, a 2007 graduate of York College of Pennsylvania

Growing up in a financially struggling single-parent family that endured some scrapes with the law showed Lisa Layden how a police officer can impact a young person, for better or worse.

“I saw very cold, not compassionate responses, and I saw police who were caring, kind, and competent,” she remembers.

These experiences sparked an early interest in law enforcement, to help young people in similarly difficult circumstances.

“I saw what I’d like to be, and not be, as a police officer,” she says.

Path to police career detoured

Layden says lack of a structured upbringing led her to move to York County from northeastern Pennsylvania’s rural Wayne County after high school, to pursue a career in art.

“That didn’t work out,” she says. “Then a West York police officer suggested I apply to the police academy at HACC, which I did in my late twenties.”

This decision led Layden back to her early interest in police work as a way to help young people in tough circumstances.

York College introduction

Hired at 28 by the Southwestern Regional Police Department in York County, Layden wanted to set an example for her two sons that she didn’t have growing up: that education matters.

“Our contract had an education reimbursement clause. I knew York College’s reputation, so I applied for evening classes,” she recalls. Things took off from there.

“Southwestern Regional hired a stellar young woman who is a YCP alum,” Layden says. “I was invited to talk to a juvenile justice class. When I walked out after class, I saw the white tent set up for graduation and thought, ‘I want to be here as a student, not just to give a presentation.’”

Classes taught her how to help

At York College, Layden learned how to help juveniles facing the criminal justice system.

“I’d already been a police officer for eight years when I took a Case Law and Constitutional Law class taught by Dr. Gary Willis,” she says. “This helped me understand social justice and led to my senior research project.”

This project, under the direction of Dr. Eric Ling, focused on juvenile justice programs.

“I wanted to understand the perspective of juveniles in the program, how instability in the home has an impact on young people,” she says, harkening back to her own upbringing. “Do we actually help juveniles in the system?”

Taking it to the streets

Layden took what she learned in those York College classes to the streets.

“As a patrol officer, I had a lot of contact with young people,” she says. “The knowledge and understanding gained at York College helped me use more discretion, rather than always just ‘throwing the book’ at juveniles in trouble.”

Layden sometimes recommended social services rather than punishment.

“I saw family disputes that don’t rise to the level of arrest, maybe a kid who ran away. I would just sit and talk with that kid for 20 or 30 minutes,” she says.

Her York College education helped Layden put into practice that human touch of an adult showing interest in a child’s situation, even briefly, that made such an impression on her as a youngster.

“I took those opportunities to plant a seed in that young person’s head and show these kids they can make their lives what they want, but not if they make mistakes now.”

Road to leadership

This year, Layden became West Hempfield Township’s first female police chief. She says being a woman in law enforcement was never an issue at York College and hasn’t been one in her 24 years as a police officer.

Rather, York College’s strong curriculum allowed her to blaze her own trail.

“The Criminal Justice curriculum is strong. Every professor was an outstanding teacher, very encouraging and available,” she says, adding York College’s high standards for writing and research helped her succeed in getting her master’s degree and put her well on the way to a Ph.D.

“My two boys, both now college grads, and my mom watched me graduate from York College,” she says. “I still remember where I parked that day, and still have my letter of acceptance as a non-traditional student.”

Learn more about the criminal justice program at York College.

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