Sharon Hill releases independent report — but withholds crucial details — into fatal police shooting of Fanta Bility

A person holds a sign that reads Justice for Fanta in front of a sign that reads Sharon Hill Police Department.

File photo: The Justice for Fanta Bility silent march in Sharon Hill, PA on 10/17/21. Fanta Bility was an eight year old girl who was shot and killed outside of a football game at Academy Park High School on August 27, 2021. The march had been organized and led by the UDTJ and Delco Resists as a way to honor Fanta’s life as well as call for police accountability. (Daniella Heminghaus for WHYY)

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Sharon Hill Borough has released its independent report into last year’s police shooting of 8-year-old Fanta Bility — and many of the most important details are being withheld.

The law firm Fox-Rothschild LLP handed in their nine-month investigation into the Sharon Hill Police Department procedures and use-of-force policies in June. Sharon Hill Borough Council did not release it until Friday afternoon.

The areas of concern, conclusions, and all 17 recommendations are redacted and covered in black. A statement released by the borough alongside the report described it as “transparency to the greatest extent possible in light of pending litigation.”

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The Bility family released a written statement in response to the report calling the borough’s decision to redact the most important parts after weeks of review “shameful and outrageous.”

“The undated and redacted report made public today by Sharon Hill Borough is an insult to the memory of Fanta and completely unacceptable in any society that values the truth and the Rule of Law. The heavily edited report raises more questions in the minds of the family and the public than it answers,” the statement read.

The Bility family and their attorney promised to have more to say on the report after taking several days to review the report. However, they left the public with a question that they should ask.

“What is contained behind those black bars in the report?”

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WHYY News reached out to borough solicitor Courtney Richardson for an explanation, and she pointed to the active criminal case and the civil suit as the reason for the redaction.

“As a result of the pending litigation, the details of the investigation and recommendations contained in the report will not be released. Litigation and attorney-client privilege prevents further disclosure,” Richardson said.

The investigators found the police department to largely be cooperative during the process.

“However, the timeliness in receipt of some information was delayed at times and the availability of certain individuals who were requested for interviews was not permitted based on their involvement in the pending criminal grand jury investigation and preliminary hearing,” the report said.

A lot of what is available in the report is already public knowledge. It provides a statement of facts about the Academy Park High School shooting using details from the preliminary hearing transcript of the three officers who have already been charged.

Following a high school football game, the police heard shots and saw a car approaching from the direction of the noise. They fired their weapons in response near a crowd. The occupants in the car were not connected with the shots being fired a block away.

In regards to the use-of-force policies, the report laid out several mentions of appropriate and inappropriate uses of force in Sharon Hill Police Department materials. The department’s Code of Conduct said that an officer “will never employ unnecessary force or violence and will use such force in the discharge of their duty as is reasonable in all circumstances.”

Several directives for Sharon Hill police officers prohibit officers from discharging their weapons at or from moving vehicles “except as the ultimate measure of self-defense or defense of another, when the suspect is employing deadly force by means other than the vehicle.”

Police Directive 40 said that the use of force must always be reasonable and non-negligent.

“Generally, before using deadly force, the officer must consider the accuracy of his information, that life or great bodily injury is threatened; whether the use of deadly force is a last resort; [and] the danger to innocent bystanders,” the report said.

The directive goes on to prohibit Sharon Hill officers from firing weapons when an innocent person could be injured.

“It is not the purpose of the Investigation to render a conclusion about the liability or culpability of any party under a criminal or civil law standard of proof. Rather, the purpose of the Investigation was to assess the comprehensiveness of the Department’s existing policies,” the report said.

Former Sharon Hill police officers Devon Smith, Brian Devaney, and Sean Dolan currently face 12 criminal counts each of manslaughter and reckless endangerment.

Lawyers for the three former police officers made a motion Monday to have the manslaughter charges dismissed. Both sides are currently submitting written arguments to the courts and the next hearing is scheduled for Sept. 16.

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