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Altoona Police Chief Joe Merrill says he wants to promote proactive policing during his tenure. “With proactive policing, we are more in touch with the community’s needs, and I saw people begin to form meaningful relationships with the officers,” he says.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

The Altoona Police Department’s newest police chief, Joseph “Joe” Merrill, plans to lead the department with an emphasis on training, technology and proactive policing.

After acting as interim police chief, following Janice Freehling’s retirement in March, Merrill was appointed in May to the full-time position.

“(Merrill) has been a resident of the community for some time now, but he also brings us outside experience from his time in law enforcement in State College,” said Omar Strohm, the Altoona city manager. “He has the best interests of the community at heart.”

A State College native, the 38-year-old police chief said he wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement for as long as he can remember.

“I don’t know there was a key moment that made me decide on law enforcement; the desire was just always there,” Merrill said.

Merrill’s father retired from a law enforcement career, which included working with the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, after 30 years of service. Growing up, Merrill said his father’s co-workers were akin to aunts and uncles.

At 12 years old, Merrill attended Centre County Camp Cadet, a summer camp built around strengthening the relationships between youth and law enforcement.

“I later became a junior counselor,” he said. “After I hired on here, I’d take a week of vacation and go back as a counselor for a couple years.”

Merrill graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 2005, and in 2020, he earned a master’s degree in criminal justice policy and administration.

While attending the university, he worked as a Penn State Police student auxiliary officer.

In 2006, Merrill was hired by the APD and attended the police academy in Harrisburg, graduating as the academy valedictorian.

“I got a lot of experience in narcotics work in my first years with the APD,” he recalled. “I was among the first members assigned to a grant-funded unit, which conducted targeted patrols in high-crime areas.”

During his time in the unit, Merrill learned the value of proactive policing and building relationships with the community.

“Most of what we do is reactive policing,” he explained. “Someone calls, and we respond to the situation as we arrive. But with proactive policing, we are more in touch with the community’s needs, and I saw people begin to form meaningful relationships with the officers.”

Proactive policing encompasses an array of law enforcement strategies, but it hinges on the idea that police are visible and active in areas where crime rates are historically higher, rather than only entering those areas when a crime is reported.

By 2013, Merrill was promoted to corporal and put in charge of the department’s Field Training Program, which pairs veteran officers with newly hired officers in a mentor relationship, he said.

From camp counselor to lead training officer, Merrill found he had a knack for coaching and organizing training schedules.

“After I got promoted to sergeant (in 2014), a lot more was put under my umbrella,” Merrill said. “I was put in charge of all departmental-wide training and internal affairs, and as problems popped up, I helped deal with them.”

Merrill continued to climb the administrative ladder and was promoted to deputy chief in June 2020, he said.

“Between Chief Freehling and Deputy Chief Tony Alianiello, they set the bar for work ethic, and caring about their officers and community,” he said of his mentors.

As chief, Merrill said he plans to continue his emphasis on training, a philosophy Strohm said was an important factor in Merrill’s appointment.

“(Merrill) wants to take the department in a direction that focuses heavily on training and help the department become more receptive to the time we live in,” Strohm said. “His goal is to ensure they are ready for the now and ready for the future.”

Part of that future includes keeping pace with the technological advances occurring at neck-snapping speeds, while not losing sight of the human aspects of policing, Merrill said.

“I’m a huge fan of technology in policing,” he said. “But technology will never be able to replace the human element, the empathy, of an officer on his beat.”

Merrill’s wife and two children support his new role in the department, but he said accepting the promotion does have drawbacks.

“My family are aware of the sacrifice that comes with my appointment,” he said, explaining a police chief is on the clock 24/7. “I’m ever thankful for their support.”

For city Councilman Dave Butterbaugh, Merrill is an exemplary choice for the position because of his unwavering dedication to the community.

“Being police chief of any municipality is a difficult task right now,” Butterbaugh said. “He’s been a very dedicated officer throughout his time, and he is well respected in the community. We’re blessed he was willing to take one of the toughest jobs in America.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ike Fredregill is at 814-946-7458.

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