Bradford, Pennsylvania is a town of 8,000 near the New York border in rural McKean County.
It’s a place where people typically hold police officers in high regard.
“Most people know all the police officers at least personally in some way,” said Bradford native Jake Mott, 23, who studies psychology at University of Pittsburgh at Bradford. Mott said the downside of that close relationship with officers is “that really makes people afraid to be critical of them.”
But that seems to be shifting. In the wake of a national conversation about police brutality, Mott and a groundswell of others are pushing for a very specific change in their town.
It’s all about removing Police Chief Hiel Bartlett.
“The reputation that Bartlett’s had for my whole life… He’s just kind of created this reputation for himself of being a bully, abusing his powers, using excessive force,” Mott said.
One example: In 2015, 48-year-old Bartlett, who goes by “Butch,” was a school resource officer. He was sued for using pepper spray on a special education student with emotional support needs and handcuffing him for allegedly not complying with a teacher in class.
Mott remembered how everyone at school would talk about it. “I really don’t understand how that specific incident wasn’t the end of his career right there,” he said.
Brian Frontino, of Bradford, has another example.
He told the city council about a time when Bartlett responded to a call as Frontino and his brother were kicked out of a bar. He said Bartlett used excessive force while his brother was handcuffed.
“I broke down. I started screaming. I was crying. I didn’t know what to do,” Frontino said. “Because at this point, my brother, who I love, is on the ground screaming and pleading for the officer to get off of him, because he’s got his knees so far into his shoulder blades that it was even cutting off his breathing.”
Things reached a breaking point in May. A video surfaced of Bartlett and another officer, Patrolman Matthew Gustin, making an arrest on May 5. It showed what appears to be Bartlett macing the arrestee, Matthew Confer, 25, after he was already handcuffed and in the back of a police car.
But the police affidavit said as Bartlett and Gustin moved Confer into the patrol vehicle, Confer “continued to kick at” the officers and that the mace was used to stop his aggression.
Brian Chapman, 33, thought that didn’t add up. His partner Katie Boser, 31, filmed the incident from their home across the street from the arrest.
“I read that report and I go, ‘Well, you know, clearly, whatever they tried to portray happened didn’t exactly happen,’” he said. “And it was obvious to me.”
‘Explode the situation’
Chapman and Boser said they found the discrepancies between what they caught on video and what’s written in the police report questionable. They filed a police misconduct complaint and released the video online, which prompted a community-wide discussion.
Both officers were put on administrative leave with pay while the city investigates. Bartlett declined to comment before the inquiry concludes.
Chapman, who works in sales, said by asking questions about police conduct, he and Boser were seen as biased against the police.
“I don’t have the insight of what they do. I don’t have the body cam footage that the proper officials have reviewed, but I mean, I’d be damned if they just shrugged it off, and then I’m going to get harassed for this,” he said.
Boser, who runs a photography studio in town, believes the matter is being taken more seriously than it would have in the past for a confluence of factors, including the video evidence and the raised national awareness of police brutality.
She said, “without a doubt,” George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis “really did explode the situation, because a lot of other people are like, ‘Well yeah, this is a problem.’ Everything that has taken place in those couple weeks have just aligned.”
Jake Mott said this latest incident should be the last straw for Bartlett.
“It’s really easy for me, from a small town, to look at each individual officer and say, ‘Hey, not all these people are bad, but this one right here is,’” he said.
Mott started a petition online to get Bartlett fired. More than 2,200 people have signed it so far. The Frontino brothers, Chapman and Boser were among them.
He said the issue is not a political debate, but rather a concrete demand that people are getting behind, no matter how they feel about policing in general.
Former Bradford Mayor Tom Riel said he shares that sentiment.
“I 100% back the blue,” Riel said. “I raised piles of money to help our local police department, but when a police officer screws up, they need to be held accountable just like anybody else.”
Riel has faced criticism for not doing more to discipline Bartlett during the 12 years he was mayor. Similar to the national outcry, he said police union protections make that difficult and he regrets not pushing harder.
“He claimed he was changed, and he wasn’t like that anymore. Clearly that was not true, ‘cause, look where we’re at today,” Riel said.
In Pennsylvania, the power to discipline police officers largely lies in the hands of individual police departments. Under union rules, terminations or other punishment can be overturned. The state’s Municipal Police Officers Education and Training Commission can discipline officers by pulling their credentials, but the board doesn’t investigate complaints against police.
Jake Mott presented the petition to Bradford’s City Council in late June. In that meeting, John Bartlett, the police chief’s cousin, said the petition was part of a culture war against “the old normal.” He said it’s a spectacle related to the larger debate about policing.
“Our police officers do not need more training or reduced resources or fired every time someone — the camera — gets upset that a non-compliant criminal was forcely arrested after breaking the law,” he said. “Give us a break. We the people of this city — not the dissidents of the U.S. that want to sign petitions and take down history and statues — deserve our elected officials to represent the common good of our community.”
He asked council members not to cave to “the loud voice in the room.”
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Bartlett’s fate is ultimately in the hands of current Bradford Mayor James McDonald, who took office in January and named Bartlett as police chief.
“A rushed judgment is in no one’s interest. We want to be thorough. We want to be exact and we want to be concise,” McDonald said in the June 23 council meeting.
Jake Mott pushed back against criticism that he is just a “loud voice.” To him, it’s a signal of progress that more people are willing to speak up at all.
“As far as I’m aware, this has never happened in this town. We’ve never had this many people and this much support trying to get a concrete change to happen,” Mott said. “So in that regard, I’m incredibly hopeful and I’ve never been more proud to live here than I am now.”
There’s no clear timeline for when the investigation into Bartlett and Gustin will conclude.
Min Xian produced this story as part of the America Amplified initiative using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. America Amplified is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Keystone Crossroads and WPSU are part of the America Amplified network. Reporter Min Xian is following stories that community members identify as deserving of more coverage in McKean County, Pennsylvania.
Q: What did the people you talked to say about the experience of being interviewed for public radio?
Those I interviewed for this story have been straightforward about what they believe to be problematic in their town, but at the same time, very conscious about bringing out the nuances of this controversial issue. Many stressed their respect for the local police department and pointed out their criticism against the police chief rooted in their care for the community. I think the people in Bradford are cautious about how highlighting a controversy could potentially draw an uneven picture of the community, but chose to speak up because they see the importance of holding public officials accountable. I hope this reporting reflects that.
Q: What surprised you about this type of community engagement?
The issue first came to my attention from discussions on Facebook groups. Local groups in a small town talk about all kinds of things, from national politics to a neighbor’s pets. I started picking up signals about how widely people recognized this issue with alleged police misconduct, as more and more posts and comments mentioned the topic. This was reinforced when we received similar comments through an online Q and A form we promoted to McKean County residents. We were then able to get in touch with those who were vocal or played a role in the community. Sometimes I find there to be a disconnect between what people are willing to share online and what they seem to be comfortable to say to a reporter. To my surprise, in this instance, almost everyone I reached out to for this story offered more details and insights than they’d written or said publicly, which was instrumental for me to make sense of the issue at heart.
Q: What lessons do you have for others who want to do the same?
In times of the coronavirus, reporting from afar can feel like a huge disadvantage. I did an informal reporting trip to Kane and Bradford in McKean County in early March, but have been based in State College since then due to pandemic restrictions. Without the ability to meet people in-person or attend public events, at times I felt like I have nothing to offer the community but promises that I do want to understand — that I’m here to listen. What eventually helped me the most was being able to spend enough time on the story, to talk to the people in Bradford, to dig into local news archives, and to gather the pieces that present what I think is a full picture. I think sticking to responsible journalistic values is the strongest way to build trust, especially when building trust can feel so different, with a new set of challenges, because our world has changed in the past few months.