Springfield commissioners address charges of racial bias in township police

Posted 8/18/20

Appearing on the Springfield Township’s Board of Commissioner’s meeting: (Top row, from left) Springfield Township Manager Michael Taylor, Assistant Township Manager Brandon Ford, Commissioner …

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Springfield commissioners address charges of racial bias in township police

Appearing on the Springfield Township’s Board of Commissioner’s meeting: (Top row, from left) Springfield Township Manager Michael Taylor, Assistant Township Manager Brandon Ford, Commissioner Pete Wilson, Board of Commissioners President Baird Standish, (Middle row from left): Commissioners Eddie Graham, Mike Maxwell, Jim Lee and Jeff Harbison, (Bottom row from left)Township solicitor James Garrity, Esq. and Commissioner Jonathan Cobb.

By Betsy Wallace

The August Business meeting of the Springfield Township Board of Commissioners began with an unprogrammed 40-minute discussion on racial inequities in township policing, including an impassioned personal statement by Board President Baird Standish, public comments by township residents, Kelly King and Lauren Camper, and statements from some of the Commissioners concerning the virtual Town Hall on “Community Policing and Juvenile Criminal Justice Reform” that was held on August 5.

The town hall meeting, which was not a township event, was sponsored by the Multicultural Parents Association of Springfield Township and the Cheltenham Branch of the NAACP and was moderated by Township Commissioner Eddie Graham. More than 60 attended the meeting, including all of the Township Commissioners and Springfield Township Police Chief, Michael Pitkow.

By all accounts, a large portion of the town hall was taken up with discussion of an incident in July in which Springfield Township Police questioned* three young people of color (all minors) for shoplifting at the Walgreens on Bethlehem Pike and of the social media posts that followed, including posts by township residents on Facebook and a reply post by the Springfield Township Police on its Facebook page, mistakenly identifying the youths as residents of the Carson Valley School, which they corrected in a subsequent post. Ultimately, Walgreens dropped all charges.

Township Manager Michael Taylor told the Local that the young people were questioned because their descriptions matched those provided by the 911 dispatcher to the responding officers.  The boys were later positively identified by the Walgreens manager, who declined to press charges. None of the individuals were arrested or searched.

Taylor also said the mistaken social media post intended to thank Carson Valley School for its help in contacting the boys' parents and that one of the three boys had been at the school in the past.

In his opening statement, Standish supported the police department and the township police chief’s commitment to continuing anti-bias and de-escalation training and similar efforts. He addressed the township’s ongoing efforts to improve relations with the Carson Valley School, including a number of productive meetings with the Carson Valley School staff, which he, Commissioner Graham, and Police Chief Pitkow attended. And he denounced as “gross intolerance” a sign posted on a fence near the Carson Valley School that made an inflammatory statement against Commissioner Graham, stating that “this is nothing but gross intolerance and, as long as these kinds of things continue to happen in our community, I’m afraid we have a long way to go and a lot to learn.”

Residents King and Camper urged the commissioners to commit themselves to addressing racial inequities in policing in the township and to support the ongoing virtual town hall meetings. Pointing to the disclosure by township police of the youths’ residence on their Facebook page, King asked the commissioners to fix the police department’s social media policy to avoid future disclosure of misinformation and prevent potential violations of a minor’s right to privacy. King was disappointed with how the police responded to her Right to Know Request seeking information on the July incident.

Camper, a member of the leadership team for the Multicultural Parents Association, noted the disparity in the number of arrests of young people of color from the Carson Valley School and she expressed concern about overcharging juveniles of color with felonies. But Camper also highlighted the positives that came out of the town hall meeting, specifically that Chief Pitkow agreed to conduct a residents survey to gauge the community’s perception and feelings towards the police department and he agreed to create a process online for taking anonymous complaints about police misconduct.

Camper emphasized that “being pro-police and being anti-police brutality are not mutually exclusive,” meaning that no one has to choose because you can be both. “Anti-racism efforts often appear to fall on Commissioner Graham’s shoulders,” the sole Black member of the board, she said. “This is not a Black issue. It’s a people issue. … [W]hen I do not see or hear anything coming from other commissioners on the board, it’s disappointing, and the silence is deafening.”

The commissioners appeared to support convening special meetings on the issue of policing and racial inequities, which would provide a greater opportunity for dialogue and full discussion of issues and solutions.

Commissioner Jonathan Cobb said that he has spent a great deal of time listening to his constituents since the murder of George Floyd and that he felt ready to start working on constructive solutions. Cobb said he thought that the commissioners could focus on the police social media policy in September, hash out the right to know issues and make improvements to the police page on the township’s website to include a process for anonymous complaints.

For his part, Commissioner Graham reiterated his high regard for the township police force and great community policing but he said that “the statistical information that comes through the Montgomery County Police Chiefs Association” showed that the proportion of people of color in Springfield Township who are adversely affected by police practices are among the highest in Montgomery County.

“That’s disturbing and that’s why this has to be addressed,” he said. “That’s going to call for some uncomfortable conversations. You can’t have 10% of the population accounting for 90% of the township’s arrests. … When you have this kind of disparity in one section of the community, all of the community is affected.”

“We’re lucky to have a really good police force,” said Commissioner James Lee. “And I think that comes with greater responsibility on an issue like this. … If there’s an area where we can have better transparency, then let’s look at it. If we have any inequity at all when it comes to our communities and individuals of color, then let’s tackle that issue. We are equipped to do that more so than if we were putting out fires constantly.

 “Our bar is so high that we have an opportunity and a responsibility to really be a leader on this.”

In other business, the Board voted unanimously to pass a resolution granting subdivision approval of 501 Birch Lane, appoint Kate McGrenihan as a full member of the Library Advisory Board, authorize advertisement for bids to install rubberized safety surfacing at Chiaramonte Park, and authorize execution of the grant agreement with Montgomery County regarding the Mermaid Park and Habitat Restoration Project.

The Township is still looking for applicants to fill vacancies in the Library Advisory Committee and the Shade Tree Commission. Township residents may send a letter of interest to Michael Taylor, Township Manager, by email: mtaylor@springfieldmontco.org

The Board announced that its September Workshop meeting will be held on Tuesday September 8, due to the Labor Day holiday.

The next virtual town hall meeting sponsored by the Multicultural Parents Association of Springfield Township and the Cheltenham Chapter of the NAACP will take place on September 16, at 7PM.

Township residents can see and listen to the Recorded Business meeting via ZOOM here: https://www.springfieldmontco.org/government/meeting-agendas-minutes/. Check the Township website for all Public Meeting Agendas, minutes and video-recordings of the Township Business meetings at Springfieldmontco.org

*An earlier version of this story mistakenly reported that the three young men were arrested. They were not. Only questioned.