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Ross Township Police Wrestle With Division After 'No Confidence' Vote On Chief

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Officials in Ross Township are wrestling with a divided police force whose members took a “no confidence” vote on Chief Joseph Ley last fall. The vote, which has not previously been reported, came after their union penned an 8-page letter that accuses Ley of creating “a dysfunctional and toxic work environment" and speculates whether Ley "is succumbing to the current anti police mentality."

Sources within the township say the measure passed by a convincing majority of the force, which numbers more than 40 full-time officers.


“We have some issues, and we are dealing with them right now,” said Chris Eyster, a member of the Township Board of Commissioners who sits on the public safety committee. While acknowledging that relationships between management and rank-and-file police were “contentious,” he pledged, “We’re going to get the house in order.”


Calls to Chief Ley and the department’s public information officer were not returned Wednesday, and leaders of the Ross Township Police Association, which represents officers, declined comment. Bill McKeller, who chairs the Ross Township Board of Commissioners’ public safety committee, said that because personnel issues were involved, he was "not at liberty to say anything about this matter right now.”


But according to the union’s letter, a flashpoint within the department was the handling of Mark Sullivan, an officer criminally charged for accessing files that belonged to Ley and a lieutenant without permission. The case was thrown out by a magistrate district judge, then refiled and dismissed again. Sullivan was hired back on the department last summer. 


The union letter, which urged members to take part in the no-confidence vote, also faults Ley for employing a performance-monitoring system that, in the union’s view, amounts to “a chaotic and controversial quota system” that “leaves officers wondering if they will find themselves disciplined for not writing enough citations [or] not making enough arrests.” And it accuses him of “discipline disparities” that “ignore the serious infractions of some while exaggerating the significance of others.” 


Among other incidents, it cites Ley’s handling of concerns stemming from social-media posts made by Sergeant Joseph Serowik, which mocked last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. The posts included an internet meme which joked about driving over protesters in the street; the department undertook an investigation, prompting the union to object that Ley "would not defend the officer’s privacy or his constitutional rights to freedom of speech."


Eyster acknowledged the performance system was contentious. And he said “the Sullivan case really created a crevasse in the department. When you go to a preliminary hearing and you have 25 guys standing behind Sullivan, and management is on the side of the prosecution, that’s not a healthy situation.”


But Eyster praised Ley, who was named chief in 2016 after a quarter-century in the department, as someone who “has been a good police officer for years.” He said he thought internal reforms would be sufficient. “I don’t want to do something drastic at this point,” he said.


Late last year, the Township hired police-management consultant W.R. Smeal to review how the department functions. The final results of that review are expected within weeks. Eyster said the report will be made public, but that he hoped the township would undertake changes sooner than that.


“There has to be a culture change,” he said. And within the department, he said, “when I talk to the people who can build bridges, they say it can be done.”