By Min Xian of Spotlight PA State College
This story was produced by the State College regional bureau of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to investigative and public-service journalism for Pennsylvania. Sign up for our regional newsletter, Talk of the Town.
A five-month investigation by Spotlight PA detailed how the government of Tioga, a tiny borough in northern Pennsylvania, nearly collapsed after hiring Timothy Loehmann, the police officer who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland in 2014.
The reporting found Loehmann’s hire and the resulting national fallout was only the latest episode in long-simmering infighting — fueled by hearsay, half-truths, and accusations — among the borough’s elected officials that left the government in shambles for months.
Here are three key takeaways from the investigation:
Pennsylvania’s police misconduct database is flawed
In response to widespread protests over police brutality in 2020, Pennsylvania passed Act 57, which created a statewide database of employment records for law enforcement officers that includes when they have been disciplined or fired for certain offenses.
The effort was championed by Attorney General Josh Shapiro. But Loehmann’s hiring revealed one of Act 57′s many limitations. The database does not flag problematic officers who have worked in other states but not in Pennsylvania.
A June Spotlight PA investigation found that the database is hampered by other loopholes and a lack of enforcement mechanisms when municipalities do not follow the law.
A day after Tioga borough announced Loehmann had withdrawn his application to be the town’s police officer, Shapiro, now governor-elect, wrote a letter addressed to then-Council President Steve Hazlett alleging his failure to run an Act 57 check on Loehmann was “a violation of state law.”
“Act 57 was passed to … prevent the type of circumstances that occurred in your borough with the hiring of Timothy Loehmann and his subsequent withdrawal of his application,” the Democrat wrote.
But records and interviews show Tioga had not broken the law, and that Act 57 was irrelevant to Loehmann’s hiring because he had never previously worked in the state.
Spotlight PA shared its findings with Shapiro’s office and questioned the key points in his letter.
In response, Jacklin Rhoads, communications director for the attorney general’s office, said that Act 57 was passed to “prevent the type of circumstances” that occurred in Tioga, but not Tioga’s hiring of Loehmann specifically.
Rhoads also refused to explain how exactly Tioga borough broke the law, and said the state Office of Attorney General stood by the statements in the letter.
Misinformation spread on Facebook
Much of the divisiveness in Tioga played out on Facebook, where officials and residents argued and accused each other of manipulations, often misunderstanding one another. That forum made it easy for unchecked claims, half-truths, and rumors to spread, further fueling local animosity.
This was especially true when residents accused certain council members of corrupting the town’s reputation after news of Loehmann’s hiring brought overwhelmingly negative attention to the borough.
The home addresses of Council Members Hazlett — and his wife, Marybess, also a council member at the time — Bob Wheeler, and Doreen Burnside were posted in the comments of a post on the mayor’s official Facebook page, along with threats of violence.
The fragility of small-town government
Disputes among Tioga’s elected officials in the past two years over things including the mayor’s eligibility to hold office and the handling of a third-party audit of the borough’s finances had soured relationships before Loehmann’s hiring.
Council Member Alan Brooks told community members in July that the hiring of Loehmann went so wrong because “it became a personal battle of who was in charge.”
Tioga residents pointed out the harm personal vendettas among officials caused the town. Some residents who attended the September council restructuring meeting said they were pleased to see their new local leaders “getting along.”
Still, the investigation raises the question of whether taxpayers are best served by Pennsylvania’s more than 2,500 cities, towns, townships, and boroughs.
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Spotlight PA is dedicated to producing nonpartisan investigative journalism about Pennsylvania government and urgent statewide issues. We are an independent watchdog unafraid to dig deep, fight for the truth and take on the powerful to expose wrongdoing and spur meaningful reform. We connect Pennsylvanians to their state, and to each other, through public service journalism that matters to their lives and is creatively told in the many modern, digital ways they consume their news.