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Cumberland County commissioners haggle with local activists over police reform demands
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Cumberland County commissioners haggle with local activists over police reform demands

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After a series of sometimes contentious meetings this week and last, a discussion between local activists and the Cumberland County commissioners regarding police reform and racial justice is bearing some fruit.

A debate during Wednesday’s commissioners’ meeting left off with the activists, part of the civic group Capital Region Stands Up, agreeing to meet with the commissioners to hash out language for a resolution regarding the importance of equality for Black and brown people, a request that is the most legally achievable of the activists’ demands.

The group is also calling on the county to enact more substantive reforms, which include hiring and firing policies in the county sheriff’s office and the creation of a law enforcement oversight board, part of a national reform movement against police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

But the commissioners expressed skepticism last week that some of these changes were within their legal purview under Pennsylvania’s government structure, an issue that county solicitor Keith Brenneman elaborated on this week.

“The difficulty is state law,” Brenneman told the activists. “This board is governed by the third-class county code, and they have their authority based only on what the Legislature gives them.”

The less technically complex discussion regarding a simple resolution also exposed some political fault lines, with Democratic Commissioner Jean Foschi being much more comfortable with the phrase “Black lives matter” in and of itself, and offering to act as an intermediary between the activists and Republican Commissioners Gary Eichelberger and Vince DiFilippo, who voiced objections to what they said were the political implications of the term.

“I’ll reiterate what I’ve said before, which is the moniker ‘black lives matter’ has come to refer to the movement,” Eichelberger said; during last week’s meeting, Eichelberger had said “you are promoting a narrative that is unhelpful by hiding behind a slogan” when asked to endorse the phrase “black lives matter.”

“I am happy to pass a resolution that reiterates the American ideal that all men are created equal,” as enshrined in the nation’s founding documents, Eichelberger said this week. “I am not taking on the baggage of the movement, at least not until I see several things take place.”

Those things would be a “renunciation of the street terrorism that has been occurring in the name of ‘black lives matter,’” Eichelberger said, as well as addressing what he sees as a “disrespect and disregard for basic American institutions including historical markers” – although he was not referencing the Confederate monument issue, Eichelberger stressed – and a movement which “continues to denounce economic freedom and free markets.”

“Tearing those things down is not the way we achieve that,” Eichelberger said, in reference to racial equality.

DiFilippo had expressed a similar sentiment in an interview last week.

“Yes, black lives matter. But I don t’ know that I necessarily support that group without knowing more about what they stand for,” DiFilippo said.

“As I said last week, I’ve always believed in equality for all and that all lives matter,” he told the activists Wednesday. “That’s not a difficult thing to put into verbiage.”

Activist Kathleen Keadan argued that the Republican commissioners were the ones “making it about a slogan,” given that Capital Region Stands Up has no control over connotations Eichelberger may associate with groups that use the Black Lives Matter title.

“I think what this group is really asking for is that we abandon this preconceived notion about what ‘black lives matter’ means,” Foschi said, suggesting that the message was that it’s important “that the county comes forward and says that black and brown lives are important, just as important as white lives and just as important as anyone else who lives in Cumberland County.”

“With my help, we can work on a resolution and I can take it to the commissioners and say ‘can we tweak it?’” Foschi offered to the group.

Questions of law

That may be the easier part of the group’s request, as Brenneman suggested this week. The activists are also asking for a list of reforms that include a commitment to not using non-disclosure agreements in settlements of police misconduct cases; not hiring officers who were fired for cause elsewhere; creating a citizen oversight board for the county sheriff’s office; and making use-of-force data more publicly available.

The crux of the matter arises from Pennsylvania’s relatively diffuse system of government, in which the county has little control over municipal police departments, which do the lion’s share of law enforcement in the state; the county sheriff’s office has a more limited role, given that its primary duties are prison transport and courthouse service.

Even if the demands are limited to the county sheriff’s office, there are two issues that will need to be considered, Brenneman said.

Firstly, the county’s ability to create the powers of an oversight commission is limited by state enablement; secondly, the county sheriff is an independently elected official and has powers over his office separate from the county commissioners.

In an interview, Cumberland County Sheriff Ronnie Anderson said that he already does not negotiate NDAs for terminations, and that the department does not hire deputies who have been fired for cause elsewhere.

Neither policy is written, either through Anderson himself or into the collective bargaining agreement with the deputies’ union.

Anderson and Brenneman both said that any policy would not be institutional.

Section 1620 of the Pennsylvania County Code, state law that creates the structure of county governments, specifies that, while county commissioners set the salaries of row officers and their staff, commissioners cannot use this power to impact the elected officers’ ability to hire, fire, and supervise their own employees.

“I agree with both of those [policies], but for me to put it in written policy, if a new sheriff were elected, under their 1620 rights, they could do away with all of that,” Anderson said.

“You may convince [the commissioners] that it’s a great idea, and it may be a great idea, but the point is they can’t tell the sheriff what to do under the county code,” Brenneman told the activists this week. Further, “it’s not binding on anyone if it’s not in the collective bargaining agreement,” he said.

But activist Dom Holmes argued that, since the issue with NDAs and officers’ records is not addressed in the union contract, any written stance by Anderson and the commissioners would be useful.

“There’s nothing in [the union contract] that prevents this,” Holmes said. “[Anderson] already in practice supports two of our demands. The union hasn’t challenged those actions so we have no reason to believe the union would all of the sudden take action to challenge these.”

Anderson also noted that the ability of law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania to share details of why officers were fired is not uniform and limited by liability concerns.

This will likely be changing, however, under legislation currently moving through Harrisburg. Pennsylvania House Bill 1841 would create a database of officer employment information that would require agencies to share information about officer misconduct, taking the onus off local officials. The bill passed the House unanimously on Wednesday, and moves to the state Senate.

Anderson has also agreed that it is within his purview to share more information publicly, such as use of force data. Deputies’ incident reports must disclose any use of force, although Anderson does not specifically track metrics such as the number of times Tasers are drawn, or pepper spray used.

“I‘d have to create some kind of report to track it. We don’t have a system right now that does that. We’d have to come up with a way to go through all the incident reports and pull that out,” Anderson said.

The final request from the activists is the most legally murky. Police review boards or oversight commissions exist in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh both have them, and Allegheny County is debating the creation of one. All have the ability to receive complaints about specific officers.

But those jurisdictions have powers that others don’t, either through home rule or through Philadelphia’s unique status as the state’s only “first-class county” under the tiered powers system enumerated in the Pennsylvania County Code.

Brenneman described those as a “completely different governmental structure” compared to a third-class county without home rule, such as Cumberland.

Activists from Capital Region Stands Up suggested that, even if the county does not have the legislative authority to vest power in an oversight board, even a simple advisory commission would be worthwhile, even if it can’t directly delve into individual cases of officer misconduct.

This is why even a simple resolution is worthwhile, activists said, because it would allow the county to at least use the power of the bully pulpit.

Keadan said she was looking for acknowledgement that Black and brown citizens “are the ones that are disproportionately targeted” by police brutality.

“When there are people who are unfairly targeted and vulnerable in our community, we need to lift them up,” Keadan said. “You are the largest governing body in Cumberland County, and that’s a part of your job to set the tone.”

Foschi agreed, citing recent allegations of harassment and intimidation of the Somali community in the Mechanicsburg area.

“By putting it in writing and getting it out into the public, we’re saying you can’t do that here, this is not a community that tolerates spray-painting peoples’ homes, this is not a community that tolerates picking on children,” Foschi said.

“I don’t necessarily disagree with any of that but I think it’s important that we get the verbiage right,” Eichelberger said, adding that he didn’t want a resolution that painted all police officers in a bad light.

But, he said, “we seem to have a good way forward.”

Email Zack at zhoopes@cumberlink.com.

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