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Police background check loopholes, lack of oversight. What a Spotlight PA investigation into one tiny borough's scandal tells us

People crowd around the table at a Tioga Council meeting about the hiring of the police officer who killed Tamir Rice.
Min Xian
/
Spotlight PA
It was standing room only for part of a special Tioga council meeting on July 12, 2022 because so many people showed up after they learned of Timothy Loehmann’s hiring.

Last June, the tiny borough of Tioga, Pennsylvania, hired the police officer who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014 as he played with a toy gun in a park in Cleveland, Ohio. Timothy Loehmann was not criminally charged for shooting the boy. But when the Tioga community heard Loehmann had been hired to be the town's police officer, their outcry led him to withdraw his application.

Reporter Min Xian and did a deep dive story on how Loehmann got hired and the fallout from it. Xian is the local accountability reporter for the State College bureau of Spotlight PA and a former WPSU reporter.

Spotlight PA is an online investigative news outlet and WPSU is a distribution partner sharing Spotlight stories on our website.

Spotlight PA is going to be hosting a panel on Pennsylvania's 2,500 municipal governments and their lack of oversight or accountability Thursday at 6 p.m.

Xian talked with WPSU about her investigation:

Emily Reddy 

Thanks for coming back into the WPSU studios to talk about your investigation, Min.

Min Xian 

It's so good to be with you.

Emily Reddy 

So you spent five months reporting on how this town of 700 hired the officer who killed Tamir Rice. Briefly, how did this happen? Was it a mistake?

Min Xian 

It was not so much a mistake. And what the investigation found was that every step along the way, Tioga Borough followed what was required of them to hire Mr. Loehmann. They interviewed him in person, they have done a CLEAN check, a standard criminal background check, for the officer or they have him go to the state police for fingerprints. They have submitted materials required for an Act 57 database check, which we can talk a little bit more. And what I found was that there was nothing legally preventing them from hiring the police officer even though he had all this huge background for killing Tamir Rice in 2014 in Cleveland.

Emily Reddy 

And the mayor says he didn't know. There was a typo at some point. A couple of council members seemed to have known. And it was just community outcry that led to this falling apart -- the hiring.

The July 12 special meeting, when Loehmann’s withdrawal from the police position was on the agenda, had to be moved outside to accommodate the crowd size.
Min Xian
/
Spotlight PA
The July 12, 2022 special meeting, when Loehmann’s withdrawal from the police position was on the agenda, had to be moved outside to accommodate the crowd size.

Min Xian 

Community members were really upset. They felt like they didn't know about this decision beforehand, even though it was public. It was unanimously approved by Tioga Borough Council in July.

Emily Reddy 

So Josh Shapiro -- who was then Pennsylvania's Attorney General, and is now the governor -- he wrote a letter to the council president has looked saying they'd violated state law by not running an Act 57 check, which you mentioned, on Timothy Loehmann. But it seems Shapiro was wrong, and Tioga didn't violate the law. What is an Act 57 check and why was Tioga within the law?

Min Xian.jpeg
Andy Colwell
/
Spotlight PA reporter Min Xian

Min Xian 

So Act 57 was the law that was passed after the 2020 national protest against police brutality. So Pennsylvania in 2020 passed this law, which established a database where the state is required to maintain records of law enforcement officers, especially if they have been fired or disciplined for certain actions. And so, now, governor Shapiro was a huge advocate for this database, touting it as a big step forward in holding police officers with questionable conduct accountable in Pennsylvania. But what we found in the investigation was that this database was kind of hampered by a lot of loopholes, and then also the lack of mechanism to enforce it. So in Tioga Borough, this became kind of an outlier example of the flaws of the Act 57 database in which that database does not record misconduct or records of law enforcement officers from outside of Pennsylvania. So Timothy Loehmann, was a police officer in the Ohio so when he came to apply for the position in Tioga and had requested his background to be checked, nothing came back because he was not previously a Pennsylvania officer. And also this database also only started recording information starting in July 2021. So actions that have been taken or disciplines that have been taken against law enforcement officers priority July 2021 would not show up. So in those two ways, our investigation have found that the database is flawed.

Emily Reddy 

So this whole situation leads the Tioga government to basically fall apart. Four or five members of the council stepped down. You know, but this is some tiny borough far away for most of us. Like, why should we care? Why should all Pennsylvanians care about this? This little example?

Min Xian 

Yeah, it's fascinating, because in my work covering local government, one thing that I've realized is that it's a place where rules meet people. And when people, especially elected officials, are not familiar with the rules that govern the local governments, things will start to fall apart. And it presents a huge question for us -- for the public, for residents, for constituents -- about how do we know when mistakes are made? So, I think there is that really big, existential almost, question about local government that was presented in what happened in Tioga.

Tioga Mayor David Wilcox speaks to residents from the porch of the municipal building on July 12, 2022.
Min Xian
/
Spotlight PA
Tioga Mayor David Wilcox speaks to residents from the porch of the municipal building on July 12, 2022. He insisted that several Borough Council members misled him on Loehmann’s hiring.

Emily Reddy 

And it's not like there's a training when you come on to your city council or your borough council. Tioga's mayor was the high school wrestling coach. So, like, is there any guidance from the state? Any oversight?

Min Xian 

It is a bit mind blowing for me to find out that there is absolutely no requirement for our elected officials to be familiar with...if they're in the borough, the Pennsylvania borough code. If you're in a township, there's a set of township codes. These are the laws that decide on things like how many people are supposed to be on the council? How should council conduct themselves? How are decisions made? There are a lot of trainings and resources offered by associations. The State General Assembly has a local government commission where they provide a lot of information. But you know, those are optional. They're there for you if you are actively seeking out for them. So a lot of times, it falls onto solicitors, so lawyers for municipalities to guide the decisions of local elected officials. And, unfortunately, in Tioga this case, their solicitor actually resigned within the week of the fallout of the news of hiring Timothy Loehmann. So there's a huge, I think, kind of a blind spot in our local government system.

Emily Reddy 

Min Xian, thanks for talking with us.

Min Xian 

Thank you so much for having me.

Emily Reddy 

Min Xian is the Local Accountability Reporter for the State College bureau of Spotlight PA and a former WPSU reporter. Spotlight PA is going to be hosting a panel on Pennsylvania's 2,500 municipal governments and their lack of oversight or accountability Thursday at 6 p.m. I'm Emily Reddy, WPSU.

Emily Reddy is the news director at WPSU-FM, the NPR-affiliate public radio station for central and northern Pennsylvania.