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Activists hope for further changes after Cumberland County commissioners pass equal rights resolution
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Cumberland County

Activists hope for further changes after Cumberland County commissioners pass equal rights resolution

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Cumberland County Commissioners

Gary Eichelberger, Jean Foschi and Vince DiFilippo

Local activists say they’re still pushing for reforms through the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office after the county commissioners passed a resolution last week condemning racism and bigotry — a move they saw as a first step toward concrete action.

Dom Holmes, one of the activists from Capital Region Stands Up who has engaged the commissioners in recent weeks, said Monday that he hopes to meet with county officials later this month.

“The resolution was a part of that process,” Holmes said. “It’s been a slow churning process, as is everything with government.”

After several appearances by Holmes and other members of the local civic group, the Cumberland County commissioners passed a resolution last week establishing that they “support the inherent human rights for all individuals and Constitutional protections guaranteed for all American citizens.”

The proclamation stated that it was made in light of “the tragic events that have recently occurred across the country” and the “damaging effects of racism and other forms of bigotry.”

Holmes said he would have preferred a resolution that more specifically addressed the issues raised nationwide in the wake of the George Floyd killing — namely, the issue of police brutality and its specific impacts on minority communities.

“The language wasn’t exactly what we wanted it to be,” Holmes said. “But we appreciate the message of unity and inclusion for the county, and we understand that the commissioners mean well.”

Holmes said the statement made last week by Commissioner Jean Foschi was “more precise” and more along the lines of what his group was looking for.

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Foschi’s statement during last week’s commissioners meeting, in which the resolution was passed, was explicit that “black lives matter.”

“There’s a problem with policing in this country and it needs to be addressed, now,” Foschi said. “Problems with our criminal justice system, our education system, and the persistent cycle of poverty must be addressed swiftly and effectually.”

Her own statement, Foschi said, was not meant to detract from the joint resolution with commissioners Gary Eichelberger and Vince DiFilippo.

“I’m certainly appreciative of what commissioners Eichelberger and DiFilippo did today and appreciate their work on our combined resolution, and in no way am I trying to undo any of the good work we did with that resolution,” Foschi said.

Eichelberger and DiFilippo, while expressing support for racial equality in the county, had been reluctant to use the specific phrase “black lives matter,” given what they saw as the potentially divisive association with the broader Black Lives Matter political movement.

Eichelberger and DiFilippo are Republicans; Foschi is the board’s sole Democrat.

Holmes told the commissioners that a resolution is just the jumping off point.

“Let’s remember that the work we’re hoping to do here, the safety for Black and brown residents of Cumberland County that we’re trying to establish through this resolution, comes through action,” Holmes said. “We have to make policy changes that keep Black and brown residents in this county safe. That’s the only way we’ll reach a realization of the resolution.”

The policy changes sought by Holmes and the group from Capital Region Stands Up include a commitment to not using nondisclosure agreements in settlements of police misconduct cases; not hiring officers who were fired for cause elsewhere; creating a citizen review board for the county sheriff’s office; and making use-of-force data more publicly available.

Those more substantive reforms, however, may run up against some peculiarities of Pennsylvania law.

Although the commissioners largely fund the county sheriff’s office, power over it is vested in an independently elected sheriff. Sheriff Ronny Anderson has expressed a willingness to work with activists on implementing some improvements, but said these could be unilaterally undone by a subsequent sheriff.

Likewise, county officials have expressed doubt that Pennsylvania law would allow a county without home-rule powers or a specific legislative allowance to create a police review board. Holmes has said his group is open to more general oversight measures, even if specific review powers over officer misconduct can’t be legally codified.

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