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Residents Speak at First Meeting After Lawsuit

Commenters criticize police ‘intrusion,’ closed January meeting

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
April 09, 2021
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Residents who challenged McKeesport city council’s decision to close its January meeting finally got a chance to speak their minds.

At Wednesday’s city council meeting, which was streamed over the Internet, eight people asked to enter comments into the official record. Four were from McKeesport. One of the others was Allegheny County Councilwoman Olivia Bennett.

Comments were received in writing from three of the four people, including former McKeesport Councilwoman V. Fawn Walker-Montgomery, Janina Riley and Courtney Thompkins, who sued McKeesport City Council after the Jan. 6 meeting was closed to the public.

All of the comments criticized police behavior during the Dec. 20 search for Koby Lee Francis, the 22-year-old suspect accused of shooting McKeesport police Officer Jerry Athans.

Walker-Montgomery, co-founder and executive director of Take Action Mon Valley, accused law enforcement of “intrusion and over-policing” during the manhunt, which included house-to-house searches and police checkpoints on major roads.

“Over 10 police departments showed up to implement their own form of martial law on various Black Mon Valley communities,” she wrote. “Systemic and police violence are historical issues that affect Black people.

“The reality of Black experiences in this situation must be acknowledged, and TAMV will not shy away from doing this,” Walker-Montgomery wrote in her remarks to council. “The shooting of one officer does not erase the Fourth Amendment rights afforded to every single resident of the Mon Valley.”

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Both McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko and Allegheny County police, who directed the search for Francis, have denied accusations that police over-reacted.

Former Allegheny County Police Superintendent Coleman McDonough, who retired in March, in December defended the behavior of officers from local, county, state and federal agencies who searched for Francis following the shooting.

Officers’ priority, McDonough said, was “bringing (Francis) to justice before anyone else (got) hurt.”

Members of Take Action Mon Valley had planned to attend the Jan. 6 meeting to address council with their concerns, but arrived at the city’s Public Safety Building on Lysle Boulevard to find the doors locked.

In March, the American Civil Liberties Union sued council on behalf of four city residents who argued that McKeesport violated the First Amendment, as well as the state’s Open Meetings Law, or “Sunshine Act,” by closing the meeting to the public.

McKeesport officials cited the rising number of COVID-19 cases as their reason for restricting access.

But Allegheny County Judge Jack McVay Jr., who approved a consent decree between the city, the plantiffs and the ACLU, told McKeesport that city council must provide electronic access and extend the public comment period. He directed the city to work toward full inclusion of the public using Zoom, Microsoft Teams or some other tele-conferencing software.

Wednesday’s meeting was the first since January. It was streamed over YouTube by Tube City Community Media Inc., and people who wanted to address council could submit written comments, or speak via telephone.

Bonnie Fan, who identified herself as a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, was one of those who addressed city council via phone.

Fan said she is studying accessibility problems that have arisen during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that she would be using McKeesport’s decision to close its council meetings as one of her examples.

“Barricading the public from a public meeting was a violation of the Sunshine Act, and using COVID-19 as an excuse when the entire year of 2020 was held in person ... is precisely why preventing the public from giving comment was illegal,” Fan said.

What’s more, she said, council’s decision to restrict access “shined an even brighter light” on the community’s complaints about police behavior on Dec. 20.

“This is the time for council to make long-term measures toward healing trust and building the community by disbanding the area police and putting that budget toward youth programming to end the cycle of violence,” Fan said.

Bennett, who works as a community organizer for TAMV and also represents a large section of the city of Pittsburgh on Allegheny County Council, submitted her comments in writing. She was critical of the decision to close the January council meeting.

“You are elected to serve the people, and one of the lowest bars of doing that is having public meetings,” Bennett wrote. “Your constituents should not have to sue you to have their voices heard.”

Following the public comment portion of the meeting, Cherepko told council that he thought many of the criticisms were unfounded.

“From my own personal experience, I think a lot of very inaccurate allegations are going around in regard to this,” he said. “I will tell you that the feedback I received (Dec. 20) from our officers was incredible ... they were blown away by how cooperative the community was” in the search for the shooting suspect.

Cherepko said the city “takes a lot of pride in our police department” and that McKeesport officers live within the city, send their children to city schools, and volunteer with local organizations, including athletic groups.

“We will continue to work on things within our police department,” Cherepko said, adding that he was in close contact with the McKeesport branch of the NAACP. “We work each and every day to build upon community-police relations.”

The decision to close the January meeting to the public was not an attempt “to hide behind or hide from” criticism, he said.

The shooting of Athans and the resulting search for Francis “was something I truly hope we never have to endure in this community ever again,” Cherepko said.

Originally published April 09, 2021.

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