SOUTH PYMATUNING TOWNSHIP — Township supervisors voted Wednesday to suspend operations of South Pymatuning’s police department until June 1 as an internal investigation continues into the department’s practices.
Township solicitor Charlie Steele cited three main reasons for the suspension:
• Four fully automatic rifles purchased by police officers that were out of compliance with federal and state gun law;
• Potential theft of township property;
• An understaffed department working under dysfunctional, or unsafe, series of standard operating procedures.
Pennsylvania State Police will take over coverage of the township effective Sunday.
Keri Bozich, a private investigator and former special agent with the Internal Revenue Service criminal investigation unit, and Howard Wiley, a retired police officer and internal investigator specialist, were hired by the township supervisors to head the investigation.
The private investigators were called after supervisors received a tip that a township police officer was attempting to modify four analog police radios for personal use. The officer told Bozich the radios were gifted to him by previous supervisors. The officer, as well as the two former supervisors, claimed a federal mandate requiring a switch from analog to digital radios in 2012 rendered the radios useless. However, Bozich said she determined that no such mandate ever existed. Bozich added that police officers are not allowed to receive gifts, and that procedures are in place for how to properly dispose of government property.
Bozich said she performed an audit and physical inventory of all police equipment on Dec. 10 after which it was determined that 30 of the department’s 42 police radios were missing from its inventory.
After the audit, township supervisors was informed by an anonymous third party that the township owns four LAR-15 fully automatic rifles, although none of the current three supervisors said they knew the weapons existed, and none of the weapons were present during Bozich’s equipment inventory. Bozich said records indicated that the the weapons were purchased in 2015. It is unknown whether the purchase of the weapons was ever approved by former supervisors.
Bozich determined that the weapons were being kept by four South Pymatuning police officers. It is illegal for individuals to own automatic weapons, and the rifles were purchased by the officers under the police department’s name for $1,000 each. Bozich said one officer paid in cash, while the three other officers paid by payroll deduction.
Township Solicitor Charlie Steele said he contacted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as soon as supervisors were aware of the missing weapons. The ATF requested that the supervisors order the officers to return the weapons immediately, but instead of returning the weapons to the supervisors, the rifles “magically appeared” in the police department’s weapons safe overnight, Steele said.
In addition to the potential theft and weapons violations, Wiley said he was “shocked” by the overall state of the department and its standard operating procedures.
During a tour of the precinct, Wiley said he observed readily open firearms and an officer’s utility belt hanging in an open locker with a loaded firearm in the holster. He said he also observed confiscated drugs inside a locked locker, with the keys sitting nearby in an open key case.
Wiley said the SOPs were severely outdated and couldn’t determined whether they were ever approved by township officials. He reported that the township’s part time officers were working 12-hour shifts seven days a week. Wiley said he also determined that the department performed little to no background checks on its officers in the past 15 years.
“From my experience, this is totally outside the bounds of what is considered best practices,” Wiley said. “My first police application was 120 pages, (the department) talked to my neighbors, friends, references and my reference’s references. None of that existed here.”
Two South Pymatuning residents blamed township supervisors for the state of the department. The residents claimed that as the employers of the police, they should be responsible for whether or not policies are in place or enforced.
“Supervisors were assured in writing by the supervising (police) officer that the department was in tip-top shape,” Steele said. “The supervisors are doing the best to do what they can.”
Supervisor Rose Lyons said the township’s goal is to now get the department fully staffed, trained and to implement policies as quickly as possible so South Pymatuning’s local police services can be restored by June 1.
“We have been working long hours to ensure this,” Lyons said. “The taxpayers, us, we want our own department. We have no interest in going with State Police whatsoever. We will get this figured out.”