Update 5:05 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 15: Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace releases a video in which she discusses the underlying reason for Chief Jarrad Berkihiser's retirement. Video may be viewed here.
LNP | LancasterOnline’s Dan Nephin reported last week on the claim by the past president of the local Fraternal Order of Police that Lancaster police Chief Jarrad Berkihiser was forced to retire because his wife posted positive comments about President Donald Trump on Facebook. John Fiorill told Nephin that his account of Berkihiser’s retirement was based on a call Berkihiser made to the Fraternal Order of Police lodge seeking labor advice. In since-deleted Facebook posts, Kristy Berkihiser signaled gratitude for Trump’s support of law enforcement and implicitly criticized Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden for visiting the family of Jacob Blake, who was shot by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “Where does the mayor have the audacity to request his resignation based on what his wife said?” Fiorill asked.
If we believed that the Lancaster city police chief was asked to retire because of his wife’s social media posts, we’d be appalled.
Because that would be an unacceptable government interference with the First Amendment rights of free speech and free association.
The truth of the matter is that we don’t know what led to Berkihiser’s departure from the Lancaster City Bureau of Police.
That’s because Mayor Danene Sorace and Berkihiser are bound to silence by a mutually agreed-upon legal document.
This doesn’t strike us as a matter of socialism run amok at City Hall, as a writer of a letter to the editor suggested. Lancaster city isn’t Cuba, or Venezuela, or Russia. (Honestly, who loves a nondisclosure agreement more than President Trump?)
That said, we believe legal agreements that prohibit public disclosure on matters that concern taxpayers are anathema to government transparency.
We are not talking about a private business. If this separation agreement included a financial settlement, we believe taxpayers are entitled to know it (Berkihiser’s salary this year was budgeted at $141,206). And if an interim chief is hired, what salary will be paid to that person? These details may be closely held in private companies, but not in municipal government.
We believe that Mayor Sorace owes the taxpayers of Lancaster city — on whose behalf she hires and dismisses city employees — more than a carefully worded statement that basically says, “no comment.”
Berkihiser wasn’t just any public employee. He was a highly visible one, particularly during the protests over racial injustice in policing that followed the May 25 Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.
Though his tenure as chief wasn’t without its controversies, Berkihiser’s commitment seemed beyond question. In a June 2 LNP | LancasterOnline virtual discussion, Berkihiser addressed the challenges posed by the protests, during which pepper spray was deployed by police multiple times.
“My biggest concern,” he said, struggling for composure, “is losing my city. And I’m going to do my damnedest to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
He compared changing the culture of policing to turning around the Titanic, but said, “We are working very hard to make it happen.”
Perhaps it wasn’t happening quickly enough for Mayor Sorace. That question seems like one she could address without breaking the terms of the separation agreement with Berkihiser.
Wild speculation is filling the vacuum left by her silence — which is to no one’s advantage.
Moreover, the separation agreement works two ways.
Berkihiser may be adhering to the letter of the agreement, but reached by LNP | LancasterOnline’s Nephin on Friday, the chief said his retirement was “unexpected and unplanned.”
Did that breach the agreement? We don’t know, because we haven’t yet seen its precise language — we hope we do.
His wife, Kristy Berkihiser, certainly made plain her feelings in an emailed response to questions from LNP | LancasterOnline.
“To sacrifice his career to save face for my remark taken out of context and my political affiliation is terrible,” she wrote. “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.”
We understand — truly — the impulse to defend one’s spouse from a perceived injustice.
But we also think this statement serves mostly to affirm our point: The mayor needs to find a way to explain Berkihiser’s departure.
Her silence is counterproductive. As are the evasions of City Council members, including council President Ismail Smith-Wade-El.
“What was the probable cause to create such a quick reaction to a hero who has helped us with the last riots and everything?” asked Deborah Robbins, of the Liberty street area of the city, during Tuesday’s City Council meeting, which was held remotely. “I’m so infuriated with the politics.”
Smith-Wade-El pointed to the separation agreement and said he couldn’t comment.
Jess King, the mayor’s chief of staff, said this in a phone interview prior to the council meeting: “At the end of the day, the chief retired. That’s what we keep pointing back to. It was his choice to retire.”
But again, Berkihiser told LNP | LancasterOnline that his retirement was “unexpected and unplanned.” So do Sorace and King really think that “pointing back” to Berkihiser choosing retirement is working?
The bottom line: City residents and taxpayers are owed a better explanation than what they’ve gotten from Sorace, King, Smith-Wade-El and even Berkihiser.
While we respect Sorace’s determination to adhere to the legal agreement between the city and Berkihiser, that agreement seems to be working mostly to exacerbate suspicion and rumor.
It has left Sorace unable to answer constituent concerns, and Berkihiser unable to defend his reputation.
For the sake of the city, they should work together to figure something out — his retirement, after all, doesn’t technically begin until the end of the month.
Too much is at stake for the city in these tumultuous times to allow suspicions to foment as they are now.