Tense Gettysburg meeting leads to public forum

Written by Lillian Reed, The Evening Sun | Apr 14, 2016 2:30 PM
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(Gettysburg) -- The controversy surrounding a review of the Gettysburg Police Department came to a crest in a notably tense public meeting Monday.

Council solicited the review after a video captured by police officer Christopher Folster's body camera was released online last fall. The footage shows Folster using a Taser to subdue Derek J. Twyman, who had refused orders to get out of his car. Twyman was later acquitted of resisting arrest, a success he credited to a review of the footage during his trial.

In recent weeks, members of the public have criticized council's decision to solicit the review and called for borough manager Charles Gable to resign. About 30 members of the public attended the meeting Monday.

State of officer's employment

Borough residents received some clarity Monday on the state of Folster's employment with the borough, which officials previously declined to give.

Currently, no members of the police department are on suspension. However, Gettysburg Police Chief Joseph Dougherty confirmed Monday that Folster is also not on active duty with the police department.

The mayor would be the individual responsible for placing an officer on administrative leave, Gable said in response to a question from a member of the audience.

At least two people asked council and borough officials Monday to reinstate the officer as soon as possible. Council member AmyBeth Hodges also said last month that she would not support any disciplinary action taken against Folster or any other members of the police department as the result of Twyman's arrest.

In recent weeks, council has held numerous executive session meetings to discuss the Twyman arrest. After Monday's meeting, council held another executive session, the purpose of which was "to provide any grievance matters filed by Teamsters Local 776 or any other matters threatened to be filed by the police officers' labor union," according to the meeting agenda.

Borough officials did not elaborate on the nature of the grievances.

Other members of the public spoke of what they perceived as a strained relationship between the borough and the police department, as well as the police department and the community.

Following the meeting, Dougherty announced he would hold a public forum on police and community relations Thursday at 7 p.m. in the borough building.

Public comment rules enforced

Council president Robert Krummerich announced at the start of the meeting Monday that he would begin to strictly enforce the rules and decorum of public comment because of an incident following the last Gettysburg Borough workshop.

"This is unfortunate, to put it bluntly," Krummerich said. "We've tried to give everyone the widest latitude, but it hasn't worked."

Following the March 30 meeting, a loud verbal altercation involving a group of people broke out in the lobby of the borough building. At one point during the argument, Borough Finance Director Nicolette James objected to Gettysburg Times publisher Harry Hartman recording the exchange on his phone.

Dougherty stepped in and broke up the argument by asking the the people involved to leave the building.

What the altercation was about was not immediately clear.

As a result of that incident, Krummerich read aloud the borough code's rules on conducting public comment to the room Monday. Should anyone speak over other members of the public or make libelous accusations, he or she would be ruled "out of turn" and not permitted to speak again, he said.

"You can criticize council; you just have to do so in a restrained and adult manner," Krummerich said. "If some of you want to say the borough manager should resign, you have the right to do so. Sorry, Charles. But you can't say things that are patently false."

Since the altercation, the borough has had interactions with lawyers concerning what happened, Krummerich said. Council members did not elaborate on what these interactions were about or whom the lawyers represented.

"I'm just going to immediately rule out of order any comments on that because we have possible pending legal or criminal action," Krummerich said.

Hartman was the only person ruled out of order after he brought up the altercation during the second round of public comment.

James was not present at the meeting Monday. She declined to comment when reached by email Wednesday.

Confusion over cost

Seven people spoke about the police body camera incident during public comment Monday, with some sharing their concerns both at the beginning and end of the meeting. Several questioned how the cost of the review, which was initially supposed to be capped at $7,500, had risen to more than $10,000.

The fees came from two consultants, former Pittsburgh police chief Robert McNeilly Jr. and legal expert Neva L. Stotler, who began the review in November.

A continued stream of legal questions for Stotler's law firm from both the 2015 and current borough councils contributed to the cost of the review exceeding that $7,500, Krummerich said.

The initial agreement letter that borough officials sent to Stotler's law firm indicated that there would be a $7,500 cap, but also that there would be two bills.

"I think any reasonable person can interpret it two different ways: that there would be an absolute cap of $7,500, but that the letter does state there would be two separate bills issued," Gable said during the meeting. "It was not clear the $7,500 included the two bills."

The legal charges from Stotler's law firm were still under the $7,500 cap, he said. But collectively, Stotler and McNeilly's fees exceed the cap.

The public was misled over the cost of the review, Hodges interjected.

"You were told a figure and you were lied to," Hodges said. "When you have any kind of business, you instruct attorneys with a cap, you stick to the cap, and that did not happen. Now you have the figure that it really will be that you will pay. You were misinformed."

Krummerich objected to Hodges' use of the word "lied."

Hodges later read from a written statement at the end of the meeting.

"I'm reaching out tonight to urge each of you to come to our public workshops or regular public meetings," she said to residents attending the meeting. "Because if you do, you will become as angered as I am."

Timeline of the police review controversy: 

  • May 12, 2015: Derek J. Twyman was arrested by Officer Christopher Folster, who was wearing a body camera as part of a test program for the Gettysburg Borough Police Department. Twyman was charged with resisting arrest.
  • October: Twyman was acquitted of resisting arrest after video footage captured by the body camera was shown during his trial. Folster is seen in the video using a Taser to subdue Twyman, who had refused multiple orders to get out of his car.
  • Oct. 29: Gettysburg Borough Council held an executive session meeting to discuss possible litigation and personnel matters stemming from the incident. Council members consequently announced their plans to have an outside review performed by an expert in law enforcement, along with an independent legal review.
  • Dec. 8: Borough officials announced that two investigators, former Pittsburgh police chief Robert McNeilly Jr. and legal expert Neva L. Stotler, were hired in November and had begun conducting an independent review.
  • December: Borough manager Charles Gable announced that the borough established an agreement with investigators that the total cost for the review would not exceed $7,500.
  • March: Borough officials said the final results of the review are being kept private because the review involves personnel issues, which are not required to be discussed publicly under the Sunshine Act.
  • March 15: Council members approved paying its bills, including about $10,000 in fees associated with the police department review, in a 7-2 vote.
  • March and April: Council held several executive session meetings to discuss "the employment and the investigation, review and evaluation of performance of specific employees of the borough police department relative to the May 12, 2015 arrest of Derek Twyman."
  • March 28: A loud verbal altercation broke out in the lobby of the borough building. The cause of the altercation was not immediately clear. 
  • April 11: Borough staff confirmed that Folster has been placed on administrative leave.

This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between The Evening Sun and WITF. 

Published in Adams County, News

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