A petition to fire two Williamsport Bureau of Police officers over alleged misconduct has collected more than 1,200 signatures.
Mayor Derek Slaughter said he can't investigate the grievances unless the petition's anonymous author self-identifies and offers facts.
The Change.org petition, circled widely on social media, claims that Officers Joshua Bell and Clinton Gardner "do not know how to provide for the needs of a diverse community."
"We know they use excessive force. We know they harass citizens without probable cause. We know they search without warrants. We know they are quick to be violent," the anonymous petitioner 'Upset Citizen' wrote.
The petition gained 1,000 signatures in less than two weeks. By way of comparison, an aspiring county judge needs 250 signatures on a nomination petition to get on the ballot.
Today, the petition had 1,286 signatures - a figure equivalent to 4.5% of the city's population, according to census data.
In the past seven months alone, Bell's and Gardner's on-duty actions have come under legal scrutiny at least four times, court documents show.
In December 2019, Lycoming County Judge Marc F. Lovecchio suppressed narcotics evidence seized by Gardner after he apparently trespassed on Mark A. Billups Jr.'s private property to illegally search his vehicle. Bell was his partner at the time.
Related reading: Judge rules police search of vehicle unconstitutional
In January, Bell and Gardner were sued in federal court by Elijah Gamon, who claimed the officers "assaulted and severely injured him" during his arrest.
"I was already cuffed and on the ground when they tased me and maced me. They had their knees in my back," Gamon said.
That case still is pending.
In February, the Lycoming County District Attorney's Office dismissed drug charges against Keith V. Harris after his attorney Michael Morrone claimed Harris was stopped by Bell and Gardner without probable cause.
In May, First Assistant Public Defender Matthew Welickovitch filed a brief on behalf of defendant Arthur Smith alleging Officer Bell made materially false statements on a search warrant application. Gardner was his partner at the time.
Smith, Harris, Gamon, and Billups all are Black males, court records show.
Fifty-four signers to the petition left comments about their reasons for signing. Twelve of them explicitly cited concerns about alleged racism.
"Racists have no business being in a position of authority," signatory Wendi Smith wrote.
Another signatory, Rachel Cooper, said, "I do not want these officers working in my city. I want POC [People of Color] to feel safe here, and these officers will cost taxpayers money with lawsuits."
The most liked comment, by signatory Jake Miller, stated, "I don't want my tax dollars funding officers who shouldn't be in those positions in the first place."
Chief of Police Damon Hagan did not return phone calls requesting comment from him and the officers.
The right to petition the government to remedy grievances is one of the oldest in our legal heritage.
A robust right to petition is designed to minimize the risk that elected officials may favor powerful special interests instead of viewing themselves as faithful agents of their constituents, John Inazu and Burt Neuborne of the National Constitution Center said.
But government entities have no legal obligation to respond to petitions.
The petition to fire the officers has not been officially submitted, Williamsport Mayor Derek Slaughter said.
Mayor Slaughter: I can't investigate anonymous petition's claims
Williamsport Mayor Derek Slaughter said he cannot examine grievances listed in a petition to discipline two city police officers because the petition's author is anonymous.
"We're not able to speak to a petition," Slaughter said. "If we are looking further into an allegation, someone has to attest to it: a victim or a direct eyewitness."
If the petitioner self-identifies and presents facts, Slaughter told NorthcentralPA.com that he will investigate.
But that hasn't happened.
The petition has not yet been submitted, Slaughter said.
And no one knows the identity of the petition's author, listed only as 'Upset Citizen.'
Supervising and disciplining city police officers is part of Mayor Slaughter's job description, per Act 67 of 2015 of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes:
"The mayor shall supervise the conduct of all city officers, examine the grounds of all reasonable complaints against them and cause all of their violations or neglect of duty to be promptly punished or reported for correction as council may direct," the statute states.
Slaughter repeatedly declined to specifically comment on Officers Joshua Bell's and Clinton Gardner's alleged misconduct.
"I can't comment on any pending investigation," Slaughter said.
Does that mean these two officers are being investigated?
"No, no, no. That's not what I'm saying," Slaughter clarified.
He indicated that he will not examine whether or not the petition's complaints have grounds because it's anonymously authored.
"If the anonymous 'Upset Citizen' is willing to attest to the petition and bring it to us as the complainant then we can review it but we still need a specific incident," Slaughter said.
Slaughter is referring to the process of filing an official complaint, where a complainant physically comes to the police station or directly contacts the mayor's office.
But the statute states that a mayor should examine complaints against police when of a "reasonable" nature. It does not state that complaints must be "official."
Do the combined voices of 1,200 signatories to the petition constitute a reasonable complaint?
No, according to Slaughter.
"We would still need actual facts, a victim, an eyewitness and complainant," Slaughter said.
Two NorthcentralPA.com reporters referred Slaughter to the above-mentioned court actions alleging misconduct.
Does a pattern of alleged incidents constitute grounds for investigation?
Slaughter told both reporters that he wasn't familiar with the cases and needed to review the documents.
"I want to be clear: I love Williamsport. I genuinely care about Williamsport and I'm working every day to make positive progress...I absolutely want anyone with any ideas to reach out to me: call me, e-mail me," Slaughter said.
Slaughter's office can be reached at 570-327-7566 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
NorthcentralPA.com News Director Carrie Pauling contributed to this report.