Police problems in 10,000-person coal region city stem from policy lapses that aren’t uncommon in Pennsylvania municipalities.
The first thing you see inside Sunbury City Hall is Mayor David Persing’s name on an office window.
Today, Persing’s got back-to-back appointments running past 5 p.m. He’s taking them at a conference table that fits easily in his chambers, along with a large, sturdy desk and ample shelving.
Persing is the part-time mayor of a town with fewer than 10,000 people.
His vote counts the same as the four other City Council members and he doesn’t have veto power, under Sunbury’s commission form of government.
But Persing’s been in office since 1989, consecutively aside from one four-year stretch.
And Pennsylvania law specifies that in a commission government, the mayor oversees the police department — typically, the biggest local tax expense aside from education.
That’s what brought me here.
A report released last week revealed the city has no written procedures for basic matters such as internal affairs investigations and cell phone use by police. The discovery came during an independent review by outside attorneys of an internal affairs investigation.
The lawyer, Renee Smith of Ballard Spahr’s Philadelphia office, found former police chief Brad Hare, since demoted to corporal, destroyed potential evidence during the department’s investigation into alleged officer misconduct.
Over the past several months, Smith has billed the city at least $40,000 — more than the city’s total budget for legal expenses for all of 2016.
Smith found the internal affairs matter was mishandled.
Her exact words: “unprofessional”, “fatally-flawed”, “biased”.
But not illegal, Persing says.
“I guess everybody expected there to be a big, giant balloon that was gonna break, and everybody was corrupt or something like that. And that’s not what happened,” he says.
Here’s what did happen:
Hare wiped the city cell phone of an officer under investigation for misconduct. Officer Scott Hause was accused of carrying on a romantic relationship while on duty: texts and calls from the city phone, squad car rendezvous.
Hause told Smith barely anything happened while he was working.
Hare told her he wiped the phone for security reasons — it wasn’t a cover up.
Smith didn’t buy that. And she lambasted the city’s lack of written procedures.
This seems like really basic stuff. But does it go unaddressed more than we might think?
We asked attorney James Gavin, who represents the Berks County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 71. Gavin wouldn’t speak to Sunbury, specifically. But he offered general insight.
“There are significant differences among departments, and the two most significant factors in those differences are the size of department and its budget,” Gavin says. “You might have some people with great ideas in a small department, but they don’t have the money to execute them.”
Sunbury’s police department has 11 officers serving fewer than 10,000 people. Those numbers might seem small, but they’re the norm in the commonwealth.
Nearly half of Pennsylvanians live somewhere Sunbury’s size, or smaller (although the poverty rate in the Northumberland County town is about 50 percent higher than the state average).
Many small towns are covered by the state police. But of 1,100 local police deparments, about 70 percent have fewer officers than Sunbury.
Even in communities with small police forces, law enforcement is a relatively big investment. Sunbury’s no exception. The city’s spending half its budget on police this year — up from about a quarter in 2003.
And 72 percent of police agencies — including Sunbury — have not been accredited, which requires implementing best practices and proving they’re followed.
Accreditation is not a cure-all.
Going through the accreditation process costs $250. If a department gets accredited, it has to pay $1,000 a year to maintain that status and every three years go through updates and performance audits, says Dick Hammon, who handles accrediting for the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association.
Accreditation can cut insurance costs up to 10 percent, but that’s hit or miss, according to Hammon.
The more consistent, if indirect, benefit is the limits on legal liability and related costs, says Hammon, who’s been in law enforcement for 42 years.
“Plus having those policies in place and enforcing them keeps you away from that (civil lawsuit situation),” he says.
And without guidelines, Hammon says, the thinking might go: if a rule’s not written down, you don’t have to follow it.
About 100 departments are accredited currently. Another 200 have been accredited or gone through the process at some point. Many are larger than Sunbury’s department and cover larger, wealthier communities. But not all.
Hammon says policy gaps are all too common, but we’d probably have to survey about 800 other departments to know for sure.
Mayor Persing says as much.
“I don’t believe there’s anything any more negligent than most communities have in Central Pa., our size,” he says. “Which isn’t an excuse, don’t get me wrong.”
So why weren’t these policies updated?
“It just doesn’t come up that much. And I guess you could call that on the elected officials,” Persing says.
Persing says he would’ve had to specifically ask the solicitor to update appropriate policies when police first got cell phones and any of several upgrades over the years.
Or try his hand at writing them himself, so the solicitor only has to review it, thus minimizing bill hours and costs to the city. Persing acknowledges he’s done that before, such as the time the towing ordinance was updated.
Sunbury’s solicitor Brianna Apfelbaum Kula just came on board. She took over for her father and law partner Michael Apfelbaum, who was killed in a plane crash last year.
As for the lack of written internal affairs procedure?
Persing swears this internal affairs investigation is the first since the 1980s, possibly longer ago. Which would mean no one has complained about a Sunbury police officer in at least three decades. Ever.
Smith advised Persing and the other elected officials to adopt policies in her report published nearly three months ago.
Persing says he’s waiting until a new police chief starts. He says whoever it is will be tasked with updating policies and restructuring the department so there’s more accountability.
Persing appointed himself to serve as interim chief in the meantime.
City Council meets next Monday night.
Editor’s note: this story has been updated to correct a typo and the county that contains Sunbury.