Conflict over Springfield Township police officers' use of the Blue Lives Matter flag in their union’s logo is playing out in a pending court case, frustrating residents who want to talk.
As conflict over Springfield Township police officers' use of the Blue Lives Matter flag in their union’s logo plays out in a pending court case, some residents who view the logo as an implicit symbol of opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement say they feel increasingly frustrated over whether – and how – they can talk about the issues it raises.
Neither Police Chief Michael Pitkow nor the union’s president, Christian Wilbur, have attended any of the numerous Board of Commissioners meetings in which the logo controversy was discussed. As a result, a group of roughly 75 residents filled a room in the Springfield Township Library at the end of January when they met to plan how they can bring members of the Springfield Township Police Department and its union, the Springfield Township Police Benevolent Association, together with the community for a group conversation about the matter.
Pitkow, citing the PBA’s legal challenge to a resolution passed by the Springfield Board of Commissioners that would limit township employees from wearing the Blue Lives Matter flag insignia on township property while they are on duty, told the Local that he can’t discuss the controversy because it is the subject of pending legislation. He said he is willing to have discussions about general operational issues concerning officers in his department, but that’s not something he’s gotten any complaints about.
“We have a pretty good track record with our residents,” he said. “By and large, they recognize that we have excellent service.”
Pitkow said he isn’t opposed to meeting with community members, but that in his opinion, some residents who are complaining about the police department are really complaining about the union’s logo - and that’s not something he feels he can speak to.
“It's a little bit dicey because there’s litigation,” he said. “I should not comment on that aspect of it.”
At January’s meeting, the residents who gathered didn’t say they were upset with the police about the service they provide. They did say they’re upset by their unwillingness to talk. And they’d like to be able to clear the air in a public forum.
“There should be some sort of group effort trying to persuade the chief of police into trying to meet with this group and just talk,” Board Commissioner Eddie Graham said at the meeting. “And I think that's one of the main reasons why we are at this stage of the game now because there's no conversation.”
Graham, who is Black, said he has other concerns regarding what he views as a general unwillingness by local police to discuss difficult issues. Graham, who is also the president of the NAACP’s Cheltenham Area branch, said he invited both Pitkow and Wilbur to a community conversation about the flag logo that he organized in October. Pitkow declined the invitation due to an out-of-state funeral. Wilbur also declined, but did not say why. He responded with an email stating that “I am unable to attend the meeting.”
Graham said that when he reached back out to Pitkow and Wilbur asking them to send a statement instead, neither responded. (Wilbur also did not respond to interview requests for this story.)
Graham said he also wonders what happened when police declined his invitation to attend a memorial for Breonna Taylor, who was killed by Louisville, Ky. police in March 2020, but instead staged their own ‘Back the Blue’ rally that same day.
Pitkow said the scheduling conflict was not intentional. Graham said he believes it was.
Some of those who gathered at last month’s meeting said lack of communication is contributing to a growing lack of trust between police and residents.
“The disrespect is so wide and so deep,” said resident Eileen DiFranco. “We have no guarantees that they’re going to act in a way that respects the members of this community.”
“I think it destroys public trust,” said Liza Meiris, a mentor for the Youth Leadership Committee run by Cheltenham Area NAACP, which has a jurisdiction that includes Springfield Township.
Nicole McInerney, another resident, put it more starkly.
“The Springfield police told our community who they are when they changed their PBA logo to the Thin Blue Line American flag in September 2020, three months after George Floyd's murder,” she said. “They continued to reiterate who they are when they rejected private overtures by citizens and the township commissioners about how detrimental this symbol is to building trust in our community.”
Pitkow, meanwhile, said he and his officers are always available to talk at regular “Coffee With a Cop” events held by his department. He also said he’s “not quite sure why [residents] would distrust the police,” especially given the lack of specific complaints filed against his officers.
“I can’t read everybody’s mind, but I will say my officers perform their duties professionally,” Pitkow said. “If they were not, then we’d investigate that further.”
Township Commissioners Mike Maxwell and Jonathan Cobb, both of whom have defended the PBA’s logo in board meetings, did not respond to interview requests for this story. Commissioner Susanna Ratsavong did not return an email requesting comment. The Board’s president, Jim Lee, also declined to comment.