ABOVE PHOTO: Protesters demonstrate calling for police accountability in the death of 8-year-old Fanta Bility who was shot outside a football game, at the Delaware County Courthouse in Media, Pa., Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. Authorities say officers were responding to gunfire between two teens when Bility was fatally struck by a police bullet in 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
By Claudia Lauer
An investigative report looking at Sharon Hill Borough’s police policies and procedures in the wake of a police shooting that killed 8-year-old Fanta Bility last year was released late last Friday, but the report was largely redacted, with any findings and recommendations obscured from public view.
The three former officers who fired their weapons in the direction of a crowd leaving a high school football game just outside of Philadelphia, killing Bility and injuring three others, are facing manslaughter and reckless endangerment charges. The borough council voted to fire the officers and to hire an outside special counsel, promising accountability and transparency.
The report was given to the borough council almost a month ago. The release last Friday quickly drew criticism from Bility’s family and from groups that demanded police reforms following the shooting.
“That Sharon Hill Borough officials chose to hide from the public those portions detrimental to itself and the conduct of its officials in the training and supervision of its police department, speaks loudly to Sharon Hill’s knowledge of its own guilt in connection with Fanta’s death,” Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. wrote in an emailed statement. “The redactions after having had the report for weeks (or months) is a shameful and outrageous demonstration that Sharon Hill Borough’s officials are not interested in providing the truth to the public as a beginning point to heal the community.”
Castor, who represents Bility’s family, said they plan to take time to study what was released and may respond further next week. He asserted that the borough’s police training failed to properly prepare officers for real world situations or to give them the ability to discern when fatal force is lawful.
Courtney Richardson, the borough’s solicitor, told The Associated Press the redactions were made under attorney-client privilege noting the outside firm under Kelley Hodge, a former Philadelphia prosecutor recently nominated for a federal judicial appointment, was hired as special counsel. She said borough officials do not plan to make the report public in the future, but said they planned to make changes to police department policies.
In a news release, Richardson wrote, “This investigative report is an important step on the path to improve the practices of the (Sharon Hill Police Department) while providing transparency to the greatest extent possible in light of pending litigation,” referencing a civil lawsuit by Bility’s family and the pending criminal case against former officers Devon Smith, Sean Dolan and Brian Devaney.
On Aug. 27 of last year, the officers were monitoring patrons exiting the football game in Sharon Hill, a small borough just north of the Philadelphia International Airport. Two teenagers got into a fight and exchanged gunfire outside the school.
The officers told investigators they believed the gunfire was coming in their direction and they believed a car that was driving toward them was the likely source. The three returned fire, shooting 25 times at the car and also toward the exiting crowd that included many children and teenagers.
The people in the car were later cleared of any involvement in the initial incident. The police gunfire did not injure the driver or passenger but hit four people including the fatal shot that struck Bility. Investigators have said they cannot determine which officer fired the fatal shot because the bullet was badly damaged.
Murder charges in Bility’s death were initially filed against the two teens who fired shots in the unrelated argument but were withdrawn after the grand jury recommendations to charge the officers.
The officers have filed a motion to toss out the manslaughter charges, saying prosecutors had not met their burden of proof that the charges were warranted. A hearing is scheduled for September on that motion.