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Tioga, Pa., didn’t do background check before hiring Tamir

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The small Pennsylvania town that hired the former police officer who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014 did not conduct a background check required by law before making last week’s hire, according to the state attorney general’s office.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) wrote to Tioga, Pa., Borough President Steve Hazlett on Friday to inform him that the town had violated the state’s Act 57 in hiring Timothy Loehmann without running his name through a database that flags past disciplinary action, according to the letter, which Shapiro’s office provided to The Washington Post.

Loehmann — who as a Cleveland police officer shot Rice and was later fired for having omitted pertinent information on his job application — resigned on Thursday, two days after Hazlett and the borough council had unanimously voted to hire him as the lone police officer in Tioga.

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State laws have been enacted since the police killing of George Floyd, including Pennsylvania’s Act 57, to address the issue of officers fired for misconduct being rehired in a different jurisdiction, or in some cases, the same city. Shapiro wrote in his letter that state records show Tioga, a northern Pennsylvania borough of about 700 people, never ran Loehmann’s name through the database.

“Act 57 was passed to ensure that departments are fully aware of a candidate’s past history of misconduct and any resulting discipline — to prevent the type of circumstances that occurred in your borough with the hiring of Timothy Loehmann and his subsequent withdrawal of his application,” Shapiro wrote. “To be clear, failure to thoroughly check a potential hire’s background, including searching the database for any past disciplinary activities, is a violation of state law.”

Shapiro added that Hazlett’s “failure to run this required check erodes the public’s faith in your leadership and the public’s trust in the officer you ultimately select.”

A spokesperson declined to comment on whether the attorney general would pursue further action against the town.

What happens when a police officer gets fired? Very often another police agency hires them.

Hazlett and his wife, MaryBess Hazlett, who also served on the borough council, submitted their resignation letters Friday, according to the Williamsport Sun-Gazette. Neither they nor Mayor David Wilcox responded to requests for comment from The Post. The borough solicitor, Jeffrey Loomis, declined to comment.

The hire has roiled the small town and split the government. Wilcox wrote on Facebook that Hazlett and other council members had misled him into thinking the town was hiring an officer by the name of “Timothy Lochmann.” The incorrect name was also provided to the Sun-Gazette and other local media outlets before Loehmann’s swearing-in on Tuesday.

Wilcox told a group of residents gathered to protest the hiring Wednesday that he had “zero knowledge” of Loehmann’s background and had been told an “extensive background check” had been conducted, according to video posted by the Wellsboro Gazette. Wilcox told the residents that the borough council has the sole authority to hire and fire officers.

After the attorney general sent his letter, Wilcox wrote on Facebook that Hazlett had texted him before Tuesday’s swearing-in ceremony that he got the okay to swear Loehmann in from the Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission, which certifies Pennsylvania police officers and runs the disciplinary database.

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Hazlett acknowledged to the Sun-Gazette on Thursday that he was aware of Loehmann’s background when the council voted to hire him, but he said Wilcox also knew about the officer’s past. Hazlett told NBC affiliate 18 News that Wilcox had access to all the information on Loehmann’s history and “never opened any of it up.”

Amid protests against the hiring, residents have also pointed out that Hazlett appears to have made a post on Facebook in 2015 mocking Rice’s death. In December 2015, Hazlett posted an article from a right-wing news website about Rice’s death with the caption, “Dumb enough to pull a fake gun, dumb enough to get shot……”

Loehmann shot Rice on Nov. 22, 2014, seconds after arriving at the Cleveland park where the 12-year-old was playing with a pellet gun. Police have said the toy looked identical to a real weapon. The killing sparked national outrage and protests amid high-profile police shootings of Black people in late 2014 and early 2015.

A grand jury declined to indict Loehmann in Rice’s death, and the city fired him in 2017 for not disclosing on his job application that he had left his previous police job in Independence, Ohio, because of “an inability to emotionally function” as an officer. Loehmann was hired in 2018 as a part-time officer in Bellaire, Ohio, but he withdrew his application several days later amid backlash over the hiring.

Raff Donelson, a professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, said Pennsylvania’s Act 57 was one of the first in a wave of similar bills across the country in the wake of Floyd’s killing.

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Donelson said Act 57 was generally created to address situations like Tioga’s hiring of Loehmann, though he noted that because Loehmann’s firing took place in Ohio and involved omitting information on a job application, it would not necessarily have been included in the Pennsylvania database. The state’s database only includes files from other states on a voluntary basis, Donelson said, and the law lays out specific types of misconduct that trigger inclusion in the database, such as excessive force or filing a false report.

He added that Act 57 has faced criticism because it lacks an enforcement mechanism, which may be why Shapiro settled on sending a letter to Tioga officials.

Donelson said a federal database of police misconduct is necessary to ensure that officers who are fired for misconduct do not “slip through the cracks” by traveling to another state. In May, President Biden signed an executive order that created a national database and encouraged all departments to use it, but because states and municipalities are free to set their own rules for hiring officers, local agencies are not required to use the database.

Rice’s mother, Samaria Rice, said the finding that Tioga officials did not conduct the required background check “goes to show how the system is repeatedly broken.”

“They need to do a better job across this country to find out where these law enforcement officers are coming from, their background,” she said.

Rice said Tioga’s decision to hire Loehmann put “people’s lives in danger.”

“No one across the country should be hiring him if there’s not a background check,” she said. “Even if you go to McDonald’s, they are going to ask for your references. I mean, come on — this is ridiculous.”

Subodh Chandra, the attorney for Rice’s family and his estate, said he will continue to monitor the circumstances behind Loehmann’s hiring.

“What we want to know is what Loehmann told borough officials and when he told it to them, and, likewise, what they knew or didn’t want to know,” Chandra said. “There still needs to be an accounting and a reckoning.”