Erie officials on Monday said they are imposing a three-day suspension on a city police officer who was captured on video kicking a woman during a protest in the wake of the George Floyd killing.
The city won’t pay the officer while he’s suspended, and the officer will remain on desk duty until he completes sensitivity training. That training will include instruction on de-escalation tactics, cultural competency and social justice, Mayor Joe Schember said.
Schember and other city leaders continue to decline to name the officer. And at multiple points during Monday’s news conference, they defended his record and behavior.
“This is a veteran officer who has no prior complaints and has never exhibited any kind of behavior that warranted disciplinary action,” Schember said. “He is a well-respected, outstanding member of the community.”
And while Schember said the “manner” in which the officer used force against the protester was inappropriate, he said “the level of force is permitted under the current policy.”
An attorney representing the protester said he was disappointed with the police chief’s comments.
“The chief tried to minimize it, and he tried to justify it,” said attorney Timothy D. McNair. “And in my view, it can’t be minimized and it can’t be justified. …I think that he’s just going too far to protect one of his men.”
The kicking incident occurred on May 31, when hundreds of people gathered in downtown Erie to protest the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Minnesota man who died after an officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Erie city leaders said the peaceful protest was overtaken by violent rioters. Police responded in riot gear.
Hannah Silbaugh, a 21-year-old Erie resident who showed up to the protest, told PA Post that she chose to sit in the street, between a large group of protesters and police. Silbaugh said she stayed in the street after police officers told her to move and after they sprayed an eye-irritant at protesters.
Then an officer kicked her to the ground — a moment that was captured on multiple videos and which gained national attention by the next day. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat, called the officer’s use of force unacceptable and said it “diminishes us all.”
The city later announced an internal affairs investigation. On Monday, Erie Police Chief Dan Spizarny said Silbaugh declined to be interviewed by police but the department reviewed interviews she gave to the media.
Spizarny said the officer was performing his duties under dangerous circumstances and that use of force was justified. He said the officer’s decision to use his foot was made in a “split-second” and it wasn’t done with the intent to harm.
“It was not a striking kicik. It was not to the head,” Spizarny said.
Spizarny said the internal affairs report was handed over to the district attorney’s office for review.
The officer’s suspension is effective immediately, Schember said. He said he wants the officer to complete the sensitivity training within 30 days. He said he did not know how many hours the training would require.
Schember said all police officers will be required to complete sensitivity training, although he didn’t have a timeline for when that will happen. He said the city will hold a series of meetings with community members, including Black leaders, and with the City Council about ways to improve relationships between the police department and Erie’s citizens.
Silbaugh could still face criminal charges for her actions, Schember and Spizarny said. Spizarny said the case is still under investigation, but he said Pennsylvania law says failure to disperse during a riot is a misdemeanor charge.
Prior to Monday’s news conference, McNair said Silbaugh was seeking an admission of responsibility from the city and the officer, as well as an apology from the officer.
“The chief has complicated it today with his rationalization and attempt to minimize it,” McNair said. “And his attempt to justify it as somehow being appropriate under the policy. That is something that we are not going to accept.”
McNair said Silbaugh wasn’t involved in any destructive behavior and she was not attempting to block police from confronting violent protesters.
“They’re threatening her with criminal action to try to get her to just go away,” he said. “That’s not going to happen. … If she’s charged, she’s charged. She’ll deal with it.”
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