How unfulfilled promises of ‘21st-century policing’ are haunting Delco

Many in Delaware County are asking tough questions after a Chester use-of-force incident and a child’s death due to suspected Sharon Hill police fire.

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A crowd gathers outside Chester police headquarters, where the family of Bahir Green held a press conference to demand answers about the 16-year-old’s arrest. A video appeared to show Chester police beating the boy after he surrendered. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A crowd gathers outside Chester police headquarters, where the family of Bahir Green held a press conference to demand answers about the 16-year-old’s arrest. A video appeared to show Chester police beating the boy after he surrendered. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In less than a month, Delaware County police officers twice managed to capture the public’s attention, and for the wrong reasons.

In Sharon Hill, an 8-year-old Black girl, Fanta Bility, was killed and several people, including her 13-year-old sister, were wounded by suspected police gunfire after a late August high school football game. Fast forward a couple of weeks, and in the city of Chester Bahir Green, a Black 16-year-old, was beaten by a white police officer after allegedly causing damage with a stolen car.

The recent incidents have some people wondering what kind of lessons, if any, police departments and elected officials in Delaware County have learned almost a year and a half after promising reform following a summer of racial reckoning in 2020.

At the time, the county touted its Task Force on Criminal Justice Reform, chaired by District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer, which included groups working toward “21st Century Policing” and “Principles for a 21st Century Prosecutor.”

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County Council member Elaine Schaefer has been serving on the “County Government’s Impact on Achieving Equality and Justice in Delco” group. In an interview this week, she said the task force’s divide-and-conquer approach has allowed for “progress on all fronts.” The county has retained a professional recruiter to hire a diversity, equity, and inclusion officer, she said.

And though Schaefer did not serve in the 21st Century Policing group, she said she has seen recommendations come from that. The county wants to integrate mental health and social services at the first interaction point between police and the community.

“So, integrating a police chaplain service that can defuse situations. We’ve applied for federal funding for a mobile crisis unit, which would be social workers literally on call to come and be a part of some of these tense situations where often mental health issues are primary above the criminal issues,” Schaefer said.

She said efforts were underway to put those recommendations in place. But William Felder of the Delaware County Black Caucus, a member of the 21st Century Policing group, told WHYY News that his group’s last meeting was in 2020.

Felder, who is also a member of the Sharon Hill Borough Council, said that the meetings had a good open-door policy that allowed for a wide variety of opinions to be heard from law enforcement and community members.

“If those talks probably would have continued, who knows how things would have turned out,” said Felder, who blamed the pandemic for interrupting the meeting rhythm.

Delco Resists, which fights for social justice issues in the region, keeps a close eye on the pulse of the community. However, members of the organization said they hadn’t even heard of the task force — a problem on its own.

“It definitely points to it only being lip service. And in light of everything that’s been happening, what exactly has that task force been doing? Because whatever it was, they failed at it,” Delco Resists co-founder Ashley Dolceamore said.

Stollsteimer’s performance as district attorney has been called into question by Bruce Castor, of the law firm Van der Veen, Hartshorn, and Levin, who is representing the Bility family and one of the other people wounded in the Sharon Hill incident.

Citing his background as the onetime district attorney in Montgomery County, Castor said he knows what it takes to handle an investigation of this weight. But at this point, he said, it is impossible to tell whether he and his clients are getting all the available information.

“I would have been in a position to release more information, even if it was in a private capacity to people who were on the inside with the family and their lawyer, not for public consumption, because I recognize that, that the family is going to begin to use their imagination, and it’s going to be going off on directions that would be unfavorable to the police. And that might be unfair; it also could end up being true,” Castor said.

WHYY News reached out to Stollsteimer for an interview, but Margie McAboy, a spokesperson for the DA’s Office, said that it would not be possible to schedule an interview at this time.

“In addition to scheduling difficulties, please note that we have several active investigations underway related to the incidents that you cite, and it would not be appropriate for this office to make any comment related to those investigations,” McAboy said.

In his most recent statement, on Sept. 16, Stollsteimer said, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the Bility family as they continue to mourn the loss of their beloved daughter Fanta. The detectives from our Special Investigations Unit and our Criminal Investigation Division are engaged in an active, intense, and thorough investigation to understand exactly what happened on that terrible night.”

A football win, then shots ring out

Aug. 27 started off triumphant: That Friday night in Sharon Hill, the Academy Park High School Knights had successfully defended their home field against the Pennsbury Falcons, 42-0, in football. What would have been the talk of school the next day was overshadowed by something more grim.

A crowd estimated at 100 to 200 people was leaving the game when shots were fired. Eight-year-old Fanta Bility was fatally wounded. Her 13-year-old sister and two others were also hit in the shooting. Initially, the public was given very little information to try and make sense of the situation.

It wasn’t until Sept. 2 that Stollsteimer released a statement saying that there was gunfire on the 900 block of Coates Street. The gunfire “included a shot in the direction of three Sharon Hill Police Officers” in charge of monitoring the crowd leaving the football stadium.

In response, however, the officers fired their own weapons dozens of times at a nearby parked vehicle. According to 6ABC, “no weapon was found after a search of the vehicle and its occupants. Shockingly, no one was hit in the car.”

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But four people elsewhere were hit, a child fatally so.

An initial investigation by Stollsteimer’s office “determined that there is a high probability that the responsive gunfire of the Sharon Hill Police Officers struck four victims.”

Weeks later, and despite pressure from the community, officials have yet to definitively say whether police gunfire was responsible for the death of Bility and the injuries of the others.

The names of the three officers have also yet to be released.

Castor wants answers — or at the very least something. He described his clients as patriots. With Fanta’s uncle in law enforcement, Castor said that the family wants America’s institutions to live up to their ideals of truthfulness and honesty.

“But as time goes by, it gets harder to believe in those principles if no one’s telling you what’s happened, and the focus, at least, appears to be on the police officers who discharged their weapons in what might be considered a negligent or reckless fashion. And that creates the atmosphere where people could believe that the DA is covering up for the police. I don’t say such things, because I have no evidence of that. But I can’t stop people from thinking that,” Castor said.

Castor said he has called the DA’s Office four times since he began representing the family. When they do call back, “they don’t tell you anything,” he said.

“At a time when the nation is questioning the competence and motivation of law enforcement, remaining silent ought not to be an option,” Castor said.

Transparency, “to the extent that it does not damage the investigation, should be the byword,” he said.

Most recently, he has sent a letter to the DA’s Office. According to Castor, Stollsteimer is now in the process of scheduling a meeting.

On Sept. 16, the Sharon Hill Borough Council voted to appoint Kelley Hodge, the first Black woman to lead the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, as special counsel to “investigate police policies and procedures” in light of the incident.

Borough Solicitor Sean Kilkenny is relatively new in his role. Sharon Hill has about 5,000 people; the police department has about 10 officers. Kilkenny believes both Hodge’s administrative investigation and Stollsteimer’s investigation will provide many answers.

“The whole Sharon Hill community grieves for Fanta and her family. This tragedy has really gripped everybody,” Kilkenny said.

Since 2020, he said, the borough’s police force has undergone some “progressive efforts.”  For example, Sharon Hill was one of the first towns in the county to use body cams, according to Kilkenny.

While acknowledging that the Sharon Hill Police Department could make improvements, Kilkenny stopped short of providing a definitive answer about whether police gunfire resulted in four people being shot Aug. 27.

“I don’t know till we know what the officers saw and heard, and the district attorney’s investigation is done, and the ballistics are done, and people have an opportunity to interview all the witnesses that were present. I do not think we should make a rush to judgment on what the police did or did not do that evening,” Kilkenny said.

When asked for a copy of Sharon Hill’s police handbook on procedures, Kilkenny was unable to produce one and said that the police chief was on vacation.

Speaking as a member of the Delaware County Black Caucus, Felder said he does not want the shootings to get pushed under the rug. The Black Caucus is staying in contact with the family, offering support, as well as keeping an eye on the investigations, he said.

“I know it’s gonna take time, but we don’t want it to take beyond the appropriate time limit that most investigations take,” Felder said.

“They lost their baby — their daughter, their child, their sister — that spirit will never get a chance to grow or to see what it will become. It’s just a total loss, and the family grieves now,” Felder said.

He wants the community to stick by their side during their time of grief. But he also said that there is “pain on both sides of the equation. Felder is worried about divisiveness and negativity stemming from the incident — something he has seen in other cities. He said doesn’t want it to become an issue of “Black between white, residents against the police.”

“When things happen, we’ve got to be even more resilient to try to keep the negative incidents from becoming so overpacked in our community that we lose sight of our ability to continue to be positive,” Felder said.

Use of questionable force in Chester

In Chester, meanwhile, the recent police incident reopened a community wound, leaving it raw again.

Chester officials previously told WHYY News that police tried to pull 16-year-old Bahir Green over because he was in a stolen vehicle. A chase ensued, and police say Green hit several parked cars.

Green’s family members said police chased Green into a telephone pole at 10th and McDowell streets and didn’t immediately offer him medical help. According to his relatives, Green exited the car with his hands up. The two videos of the arrest on Facebook show Green being held on the ground by two police officers while another throws punches.

Police also say they discovered a loaded gun in the vehicle and found Green had a juvenile bench warrant from August for a firearms violation.

On Monday, Green’s family and members of the community rallied in front of Chester police headquarters demanding justice and making public pleas for help. On Monday, Green was being held at the Youngstown Detention Center in Fayette County because Delaware County’s own juvenile detention center has been closed due to allegations of abuse.

Zulene Mayfield, a longtime Chester activist who has spoken on behalf of the family, told WHYY News that Green was to be moved to Chester County’s juvenile facility on Thursday. The family has retained both criminal defense and civil attorneys.

WHYY News reached out to Chester Police Commissioner Steven Gretsky for comment for this article, but did not receive a response to that request.

On watching video of Green’s arrest, Carol Kazeem of Delco Resists said, she was not shocked. Rather, she said, she was upset and disappointed, because she feels as if she and others have sounded the alarm on police misconduct in Chester before.

“When it comes to our children, especially here in our communities, they don’t really look at them as children,” Kazeem said.

Kazeem said that she was once a child confronted by Chester police, and that it was not a pleasant experience for her. Despite the promises made by county and local officials to reform the criminal justice system, she said she hasn’t seen any changes.

“Individually, I will say communication has maybe gotten better, because myself and other colleagues of mine between police departments … may be sitting down with a captain or chief now. And that’s the end goal, but very minimal,” Kazeem said.

In the meantime, she said she wants officers who want to bridge the gap to do so in the community, not simply while they are on duty.

“This is not `Robocop.’ You’re not just going to come to Chester and think it will be action, because change is coming. This is not a movie, this is real life. You can’t play with people’s lives. And that’s all I ask of our police department,” Kazeem said.

Having idols in politics will only set you up for failure, according to Kazeem. She’s certain of that, she said: Politicians are unpredictable, and promises made in offices can’t be fulfilled unless elected leaders and police meet the community on the ground.

“Unless I know that they’re on the ground, unless I know that they’re actually out there doing the work or have experienced it, I don’t hold any of them to that,” Kazeem said.

She has faith that change will come, but she is also tempering her expectations.

County Council member Schaefer told WHYY News that “these situations are absolute tragedies, and they really do tear at the fabric of all of the work that we’re trying to do.”

For her, Schaefer said, the litmus test of success in the community is trust. Another important measure of public trust is how the police are viewed, she said.

One thing that came out of the task force is that Delaware County wants police to be protectors, not aggressors, she said: “We want our police to be guardians, not warriors.”

But the several-thousand-year-old question regarding those in positions of power remains: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Who will guard the guards themselves?

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