Jarrad Berkihiser was pushed out of his job as chief of the Lancaster City Bureau of Police last fall, the result of a falling out with the mayor over approaches to racial equity and progressive policing issues in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.
In the months since, Berkihiser has kept largely quiet, saying little — publicly, at least — about what he thinks led to his unplanned departure, or the summer protests preceding it.
But he opened up in March, faulting Mayor Danene Sorace and the protesters generally for turning last June’s protests into a disorganized “garbage dump” lacking realistic goals. Berkihiser said he believes some protesters wanted to physically take over the police station.
His comments were made on “Diakonos: A Cop’s Calling,” a podcast created by Anthony Weaver, who retired from the city police force earlier this year as a sergeant. Diakonos is a Greek word meaning servant, and according to Weaver, part of the podcast’s mission is to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.
LNP | LancasterOnline learned of the podcast this week.
Sorace, in an emailed statement, said she hasn’t heard the podcast, nor does she intend to listen to it.
“Since last October, I’m proud of the distance we’ve come as a city. Interim Chief John Bey shares my values and vision, passion and conviction to build a stronger and more equitable Lancaster,” she said. “In his first few months on the job, he has put those values and vision to work and reported the excellent progress made toward 21st century policing to City Council on April 13.”
Berkihiser did not respond to requests for comment.
A new kind of protest
The former police chief said last summer’s protests, sparked by George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer, were unlike anything he’d seen in his 30-plus years in law enforcement.
“We had mini-riots before in Lancaster, and this was just completely different, and the dynamic was different. We even tried to meet with individuals who emerged as leaders in this movement, and they didn't have a rational thought between them on what they wanted,” he said. “Actually, a couple of them couldn’t even speak to what they wanted related to Lancaster because they weren't from here.”
Berkihiser said protesters mistakenly thought police controlled the county prison, and he said one of the protesters asked for more science, technology, engineering and math classes at city schools — something well outside the department’s purview.
“So trying to sit with them in a meeting and get some kind of resolution was next to impossible,” he said.
On the first day of the protests — Saturday, May 30 — Berkihiser said he just expected a few “do-gooders” to gather at Penn Square with signs. He said organizers of past protests contacted police in advance, who provided guidelines so protesters could exercise their First Amendment rights without disrupting others.
But, he said, there was nobody willing to take ownership of the post-Floyd killing protests.
He estimated at least 1,000 people took part on the first day, describing it as a “roving nightmare” in which police tried to leapfrog protesters to control traffic as they marched in the streets.
But by the night of May 30, he said, the tenor changed, and it continued to change the next day, a Sunday.
He was at home Sunday morning when he got a call from a shift lieutenant saying people were blocking intersections and impeding traffic. He told the lieutenant to issue warnings to clear out, then start arresting those who didn’t comply.
He turned on his radio and listened to what was going on. When he heard the lieutenant call for additional help from other departments, Berkihiser went in to work, saying he knew things were escalating.
The people the police arrested for blocking intersections largely weren’t a problem, Berkihiser said.
“We had to use pepper spray to keep the rest of the crowd back because they wanted to interfere with the arrests. And it just went sideways from there,” he said.
“We had Black and Hispanic officers that were on the line that day, and they were being screamed at, just awful racist things by white suburban people - nobody I recognized from being in the city,” he said.
Critical of the mayor
Berkihiser said he called Mayor Sorace on that Sunday, urging her to ask community stakeholders to help control things, “because my way of getting it under control is going to be a lot more violent, and we're going to use tear gas to get it under control, ‘cause right now we're afraid we're going to get overrun.”
Some protesters wore body armor, he said, while others were “clearly armed.”
Sorace and community leaders came to the police station and were able to calm things down for a bit, he said. But then, Berkihiser said, the mayor’s next action left the police “babysitting this protest for a week.”
Sorace, he said, “gave them the street in front of our police station,” referring to the decision to close Chestnut Street to traffic so protesters could continue to rally and give speeches.
“There was no prior discussion. I think she was just caught up in the moment — not making excuses or anything. ... I’ve had different people tell me that every time she spoke ... she sounded more like one of the protesters and not like an elected official who was in charge of the city,” he said.
Berkihiser said the pandemic impacted the ability of some Black and Hispanic leaders to help defuse tensions between protesters and police, as COVID-19 had a disproportionate effect on those leaders’ communities.
“You didn't have that voice of reason and people with life experience to help direct them or provide them assistance in their movement, and that was part of the problem,” he said.
Berkihiser said he spoke with the Rev. Roland P. Forbes Jr., of Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Rev. Edward M. Bailey, of Bethel AME Church, and they acknowledged problems with the protests.
“Rev. Bailey, you know, isn’t exactly a fan of the Lancaster police,” Berkihiser said on the podcast. Bailey “said that the problem is we’re not leading these young people on how to do this the right way, you know? And his explanation was: we can’t do it this way. We have to do it at the voting booth. … That’s how you get change.”
When told of Berkihiser’s remarks, Bailey on Wednesday said while he didn’t recall saying anything about voting, Berkihiser’s recollection was accurate.
“Nobody knew who was leading that group. They were not from the city of Lancaster … they were disjointed,” Bailey said.
Bailey also found fault with Sorace.
“The mayor argued about the problem, but they never said what they could do” as city leadership, he said. “The mayor is trying to be a friend to everyone. You’re in power. Tell me what you can do, and if you can’t do something, say so.”
In one podcast segment, Weaver, the host, spoke about a city council member who addressed protesters and spoke of revolution.
Though not identified by name, Weaver and Berkihiser were speaking about council President Ismail Smith-Wade-El.
Berkihiser said that to him, revolution means bloodshed.
“You can be Democrat, Republican, independent or just, you know, a dynamic speaker, but any time you start using words like that it can whip anybody into a frenzy that’s leaning one way or the other,” Berkihiser said. “It’s just not a good thing, especially from people who are supposed to be leaders in the community.”
Smith-Wade-El said he was aware of what had been said about him, but hadn’t listened to the podcast.
“I appreciated the comment that I am a dynamic speaker, but my thoughts on the rest of it are that Jarrad Berkihiser doesn’t work for the City of Lancaster. Since he’s departed, Mayor Sorace, Chief Bey and myself are working on public safety reform,” he said.
A protester responds
Savannah Thorpe, a Manheim Township resident at the time of the protests but who is moving in the city in July, said she was aware of the podcast, but didn’t listen to it.
“Glad that he got his little two cents in there. I am more interested in what we are doing now that he is not in the way of progress anymore,” she said.
When told some of what Berkihiser said, including that protesters were disorganized and lacked goals, she responded: “That sounds like a perspective that he is free to have.”
“The reason that the police came under such scrutiny had to do with the fact that they were gobbling all of this money that protesters wanted to go elsewhere,” Thorpe said.
The two-part conversation with Berkihiser runs a little over three hours. Much of the podcast recounts how he got into law enforcement, his various assignments and discussing police work and issues such as police suicides and the need for the law enforcement community to take care of officers’ mental health issues.
In one vignette, Berkihiser discussed the emotional toll of investigating an August 2003 case in which four children died, one of whom was the same age as one of his daughters at the time. He eventually sought therapy and said he believes he has PTSD as a result.
“I’ve been described as an empath so I, you know, take on other people’s feelings ... because I have this need or want to help people. I think that probably makes me a little more prone to (PTSD), ... so when I went to therapy I realized ... it just wasn’t the fire that did it; it was all the death I was seeing prior to that, although my mind didn't recognize it, it was having an effect on me,” he said.
Berkihiser started off the podcast addressing host Weaver’s assessment that he had been forced out his job.
Berkihiser said he was planning on staying around another several years and had things he wanted to accomplish, though he didn’t say what they were.
“Essentially, I felt like I got stabbed in the back by a few of those individuals for what I consider probably political gain. That took me a little bit of time to adjust to,” he said, not specifying who they were.
As the podcast winds up, with a discussion on the state of policing, Berkihiser talks about the last county-wide pool of police recruits identified in the months after the protests.
“We want a police department to reflect the community that they serve,” he said. Of the recruits, Berkihiser said it “was probably the most diversity we’ve ever had in numbers. The number of women that came out was unreal. So, I think the profession is moving in the right direction.”
Ultimately, Berkihiser told Weaver that leaving the force brought him back to his faith in God and was probably the best thing that could have happened to him, noting he was dealing with high blood pressure and headaches.
“Although it wasn’t the best way for me to exit, it’s all part of God’s plan,” he said.
At the time the podcast was made, Berkihiser said he did not have a job and was waiting for the right opportunity.