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Tensions ran high at a recent special meeting of Yeadon Borough Council as residents and elected officials alike clashed for more than an hour over a series of seemingly avoidable tragedies.
Something that hasn’t happened in the borough in decades, according to borough officials, has now happened twice in the last four months: Two people have hanged themselves while in the custody of the Yeadon Police Department.
The borough has asked the U.S. Department of Justice and the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office to investigate what went wrong.
Although Democrats hold every elected position in Yeadon, local government has been roughly divided into two factions: the council president and most of the newer members of council, and the mayor and the longer-serving members of council. People on each side believe that the other is partially responsible for what has happened in the borough.
Council President Sharon Council-Harris called for Mayor Rohan Hepkins to resign.
Hepkins said the borough needs to hire more officers for a police force he believes is understaffed and overworked.
While some community members frustrated with the deaths of their neighbors chose sides, others are disillusioned with the infighting altogether.
“I’m about sick of all of this. We had a young kid that died in that jail cell. Now we have another young girl that hung herself in his jail cell. You would think that seven people, and a mayor with the acting chief would be here in this room tonight to tell us exactly what happened up there in that jail cell and come up with a solution so that this doesn’t happen again,” said resident Leslie Lewis-McGirth during public comment.
A 34-year-old woman attempted to take her own life on Nov. 8 while under the custody of the Yeadon Police Department. She was arrested following a domestic incident. During an exchange with officers, the woman told police that she was experiencing a mental health crisis.
Officers took the woman to the borough’s holding cells in the basement of the police station. According to Council-Harris, body camera footage shows the woman pleading for help and explicitly telling police she would take her life if placed in the cell.
Police placed her in the cell anyway unsupervised. Council-Harris said body camera footage shows the woman hanging herself. Twenty minutes later, a part-time officer saw what was going on via a video monitor. Officers successfully performed CPR on the scene, but the woman is in critical condition and her brain has been permanently damaged due to oxygen deprivation, Council-Harris wrote in a letter to the Department of Justice.
“I am deeply shocked and saddened by the events of the past four months. And we have to respond to this situation with all deliberate speed,” Council-Harris told WHYY News in an interview.
On July 5, Shawn Morcho, 22, of Yeadon, killed himself in police custody. Borough officials have not disclosed the details of his death.
Council-Harris said nothing has been done to address the department’s shortfalls.
“Can anyone brought into custody by this police department — can you anticipate … that you’re going to be treated in a safe manner? That’s the issue here,” Council-Harris said.
She believes Hepkins has been “derelict” in his duty as mayor.
“We have not been able to get one statement from him accepting responsibility for what is happening here. He wants to just position himself and shift blame when the blame sits at his feet,” Council-Harris said.
At a July 27 special meeting, council passed a motion requiring all Yeadon Borough police officers to complete nationally recognized mental health first aid training, crisis intervention training, and diversity training.
The officers never took the training courses.
The predominantly Black borough of Yeadon is home to more than 11,500 people. Yeadon employs nearly 20 police officers, including two part-time officers, to cover the 1.6-square mile borough. The total annual budget for the town is approximately $7 million, and the police department exhausts $4.1 million (58%).
“They are more than half to run that department, which in and of itself stands some scrutiny and reconsideration,” Council-Harris said.
The mayor said short staffing is to blame for not conducting the mental health training.
“No one’s refused it. The thing is, you need time to do it. You need time to take the people away. And right now, we can’t even hold shifts,” Hepkins said in an interview with WHYY News.
He believes several issues led to the two hanging incidents at the police department. Most of those problems, he said, stem from the firing of former Yeadon Police Chief Anthony “Chachi” Paparo.
Borough Council fired Paparo in a 4-3 decision in February because of part-time hiring practices that cost the municipality $387,000 due to a settled union grievance. Paparo filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the council, alleging he lost his job because he’s white.
Hepkins said the decision was “ill-advised” and there needs to be a permanent replacement for Paparo instead of backfilling with a lieutenant.
“You’ve taken another officer — a senior officer — out of an already small pool or hemorrhaging pool of officers where you are already shorthanded and it put the borough at risk in not having the right oversight — permanent oversight — and work in short staff and being castigated as white racist cops that we don’t want here, and the morale is really low,” Hepkins said.
The council president said she doesn’t believe the mayor’s reason is enough to justify not following protocol.
“Anytime you tell me that police low morale is a reason you don’t follow the protocol and don’t follow the policy, and then put [them] on desk duty with full pay — I have a problem with that,” Council-Harris said.
According to Hepkins, Yeadon has made an arrangement with the District Attorney’s office and surrounding municipalities to ensure that the borough’s holding cells will no longer be in use while the investigations are underway. People taken into custody by Yeadon police will now be held in an adjacent municipality’s cells.
Following a heated remark from a community member at the special council meeting on Thursday, the public comment period almost came to a close. But there was one more person left to speak.
Dyamond Gibbs, of the local social justice organization Understanding, Devotion, Take action, and Justice (UDTJ) came to the microphone and said she had been following Morcho’s case. She thought there should not have been a repeat.
“The fact that you don’t even know how to conduct yourselves … is actually very embarrassing and I’m just tired of it. I’m 25 years old and I conduct myself better than this with my siblings, like, come on now. And you guys are recorded. You have a community to back up, and we can’t even come to you — because we don’t trust you to,” Gibbs said.