Editor's note: Mayor Danene Sorace said that she would not be able to comment on Chief Berkihiser's retirement.
Lancaster’s police chief was forced to retire because his wife posted positive comments about President Trump on Facebook, according to the past president of the local Fraternal Order of Police.
Mayor Danene Sorace announced Jarrad Berkihiser’s retirement on Friday, Oct. 2, during a three-and-a-half-minute news conference at which she did not answer questions and which Berkihiser did not attend.
It was retire or be fired, John Fiorill, the FOP’s immediate past president said Friday.
Fiorill said his account of Berkihiser’s retirement is based on a call Berkihiser made to the FOP lodge seeking labor advice after Sorace demanded his resignation. Since Berkihiser had not reached an agreement with the city at the time of that call, Fiorill said he believes he can share the information with the media.
“The irony of this whole thing is, he didn’t make that statement,” Fiorill said. “He knows better than to get involved in politics. It was his wife. Where does the mayor have the audacity to request his resignation based on what his wife said? He had nothing to do with it.”
In the since-deleted Sept. 27 Facebook posts, Kristy Berkhiser responded to comments made by a friend who had volunteered at the Trump campaign rally at Harrisburg International Airport the day before.
The friend said Trump “spoke so much of law enforcement officers and his respect and thankfulness for them!”
Berkihiser’s wife responded: “why im voting for him again. Same reason as last time… you don’t see him meeting w Jacob Blake’s family or speaking to him by phone…”
Blake is the Black man who was shot in the back in August by Kenosha, Wisconsin police. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden met with Blake’s family.
That was apparently the extent of the Facebook exchange, based on screen shots LNP | LancasterOnline obtained.
Sorace, in an email Friday, declined comment.
“As it relates to Chief Berkihiser’s retirement, I have nothing further to add beyond my comments last Friday,” she wrote.
Although Berkihiser’s retirement doesn’t officially begin until the end of October, he is no longer reporting for work. LNP has submitted a right to know request about his separation agreement from the city. His salary this year was budgeted at $141,206.
At the Oct. 2 press conference, Sorace cited some of Berkihiser’s accomplishments, including implementing a department-wide body-camera program, improving the department’s use-of-force policy, creating a community engagement sergeant position, and hiring the city's first police social worker.
Berkihiser, 49, who lives in the Millersville area, was with the department 26 years. He started as a patrol officer and rose to captain before being named acting chief three years ago.
When Sorace named Berkihiser chief in May 2018, she called him "in many ways ... Lancaster’s best-kept secret." She described him as a leader "with integrity, vision, and a deep commitment" to Lancaster. He was hired following a nationwide search by a 10-person committee that included police, community and city council representatives.
Berkihiser, reached Friday, said his retirement was “unexpected and unplanned.” He declined to answer additional questions for this story.
Berkihiser’s separation agreement with the city prohibits him from commenting, Fiorill said.
Replying by email to questions from LNP | LancasterOnline, Berkihser’s wife said her husband was being unjustly punished.
Her post, she wrote, was taken out of context.
“That afternoon I read an article about a presidential candidate visiting a victims family after a critical incident where all the facts are still being investigated and I was sickened that they were used so a politician could pander for votes. I feel this behavior is disrespectful to the family and the community,” she wrote in answer to LNP | LancasterOnline.
“To sacrifice his career to save face for my remark taken out of context and my political affiliation is terrible. He deserves better. I have heard so many people say he is the right chief for the right time. It is because he is. He is genuine, fair, and truthful in all he does and never for his own gain,” she wrote.
“I can tell you this guy is a very qualified chief of police. He had all the credentials necessary to run the police department,” he said. Fiorill was a city police officer and retired 19 years ago; he and Berkihiser did not work together, but he knew him through the FOP.
“... Look at everything this chief did to bring the community together, it was unheard of,” he said, referring to Berkihiser’s willingness to meet with protesters and march with them during protests after the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a Minnesota police officer earlier this year.
"That showed his compassion and his, if you want to say, love not only for his department (but also for) the city and to be able to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the community that he took an oath to serve, he was doing everything imaginable that a chief would do to bridge that gap,” Fiorril said.
But Berkihiser was also criticized for the department’s handling of the protests, particularly when tear gas was used. Some suggested police gestures of marching and kneeling were simply to save face.
Berkihiser told city council that police were justified in using tear gas in all six instances during the Floyd protests, though in one instance, an officer did not use the spray properly. That officer was retrained.
Even so, Berkihiser told council members, the handling of protests and use of force needed to be examined and he pledged to do so.
Fiorill said the FOP knows of no other reasons that Berkihiser would be asked to resign other than his wife’s posts.
“It’s not performance-related. It’s political. And it was because of the pressure some of the more radical members of (the mayor’s) inner circle placed on her,” he said.
Berkihiser, Fiorill said, chose to retire rather than be terminated so he could go out on his own terms. Had Berkihiser been fired, he said, he could have brought a wrongful termination suit, but that could take years to resolve.
“Why should he endure the anxiety of having on his name terminated when he can leave under his own conditions? And that’s why we had our attorney draft the separation agreement,” Fiorill said.