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Pa. state trooper still on the job after 4 killings

Plus, a year's worth of hard-hitting investigative journalism.

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

December 30, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Lethal force, year in review, hate groups, redistricting ruckus, mask ruling, landmark trial, roadside reckoning, counsel moves, and on-call doctor.
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A Pennsylvania State Police trooper involved in four separate fatal shootings returned to duty after three investigations by his own agency, The New York Times reports.

A fourth inquiry is underway after Trooper Jay Splain killed an unarmed Jonestown man in his car last month. The Times calls it an "extraordinary tally" for an officer patrolling "largely rural areas with low rates of violent crime."

The paper notes that rather than have independent outsiders look into the killings, the law enforcement agency has conducted its own reviews led by officers from Splain's unit, "raising questions about the rigor of the inquiries."

Similar concerns were aired after troopers killed 19-year-old Christian Hall, who was fatally shot while experiencing a mental health crisis on an I-80 overpass one year ago today

Unredacted video obtained by Spotlight PA and NBC News shows that Hall had his arms raised above his head, a realistic-looking pellet gun in one hand, as two troopers opened fire.

The shooting was ruled justified, but weeks after Spotlight PA's reporting, a state oversight panel recommended independent reviews of such shootings to replace the existing system led by local prosecutors who often work closely with the same officers they're tasked with scrutinizing. 

A planned bill by state Sen. Art Haywood (D., Montgomery), meanwhile, would require that the state attorney general be given new powers to investigate all police killings. It's not clear where Gov. Tom Wolf stands on the panel's recommendation or the bill. His office says he has yet to review either.

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA
"Although [his parents] will never have Christian back … they at least want this to never happen again to someone and they want the people who did this to have some kind of consequence — not, 'Well it's just justified.'"

—Nicole Henriquez, cousin to 19-year-old Christian Hall who was killed by Pa. State Police one year ago, on the family's ongoing push for accountability
There are just 36 hours left to help us raise a massive $100,000 in support of Spotlight PA's vital journalism. That's enough money to pay for one reporting position for an entire year. Help us end the year strong by making a tax-deductible gift now. 
» MAPPING POWER: Join us Thursday, Jan. 6 at noon EST for a free panel on the proposed state House and Senate maps, how they could shift political power, and their potential impact on Pennsylvanians. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org.
» Philadelphia still plans to reopen schools for in-person learning next week, even as the city averages more COVID-19 cases than at any other point during the pandemic, Chalkbeat reports.

» The CDC's loosened quarantine guidelines for asymptomatic people who have contracted the coronavirus don't require they get tested before leaving isolation, and that's worrying some experts, the AP reports.

» Pennsylvania set a single-day record on Wednesday with 17,520 additional COVID-19 cases reported statewide, the Morning Call reports, and 304 deaths, the highest such statewide total since last winter.

» A Wilkes-Barre hospital official told NPR about how a flood of COVID-19 patients is straining staff, while the Meadville Medical Center took out a full-page newspaper ad pleading with people to get vaccinated.

» Hard-hit Pennsylvania hospitals will receive "strike teams" via the federal government to help alleviate capacity strain, PennLive reports.

» Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, or find where to get a vaccine.
» See how the proposed Pennsylvania state Senate map scores in every key area

» Pa. redistricting maps: Search now to see your old and new legislative districts

» Everything you need to know to stay COVID-safe during a second pandemic winter

Spotlight PA's best investigations of 2021

» Following the money

In 2021, Spotlight PA's "The Hidden Tab" series continued to plumb the depths of lawmaker spending in Pennsylvania and the millions of tough-to-track tax dollars that are used each year to reimburse a well-paid state legislature.

This year, the award-nominated series — a collaboration between Spotlight PA reporter Angela Couloumbis and The Caucus — covered lawmakers cashing in big on meals, lodging, and other perks during the COVID-19 pandemic; detailed the obstacles that keep taxpayers in the dark; identified the biggest spenders; and led to the Senate posting spending details online for the first time ever.

» Treatment traps

Reporter Ed Mahon and KHN combined to uncover dangerous gaps in Pennsylvania's oversight of drug and alcohol treatment programs for the first installment in Spotlight PA's award-winning "Fundamental Flaws" series. 

The series remained focused on the state's ongoing efforts to rein in under-regulated and unregulated segments of the rehab industry, members of which were allowed to continue operating despite repeated violations and harm to clients.

The related "Turned Away" series helmed by Mahon examined the toll of Pennsylvania's failure to clarify rules around addiction treatment funding and medical marijuana use, an omission that saw help denied to 24-year-old Tyler Cordeiro of Bucks County weeks before he died of an overdose

» Final moments

Months after Pennsylvania State Police fatally shot a 19-year-old in crisis named Christian Hall, Spotlight PA reporter Gary Harki teamed up with NBC News to obtain and publish unredacted video of the shooting, renewing questions about the use of lethal force.

The full videos show the final seconds of Hall's life, during which Hall appears to keep his hands over his head, a realistic-looking pellet gun in one, as troopers open fire. Officials previously obscured these critical moments.

Weeks after the investigation was published, a state oversight panel recommended independent reviews of State Police shootings to replace an existing system led by local prosecutors who often work closely with the same officers they're tasked with scrutinizing. 

» Strings attached

The Milton Hershey School, founded by the namesake chocolatier, has more money than Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh combined, but Charlotte Keith, The Inquirer, and ProPublica found large discrepancies between what the boarding school spends on its low-income students and what critics argue it could spend — a gap at the center of two prior investigations into the charity by Pennsylvania's attorney general.

Additional reporting found the school's investment in students comes with strings attached — leaving some behind and others strapped with debt.

» Continuing COVID-19 coverage

Year two of Spotlight PA's coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic homed in on the state's rocky vaccine rollout, troubled rent relief program, prison blindspots, a contact tracing data breach, big-money contracts with little scrutiny, the ongoing unemployment crisis, and the transparency — or lack thereof — in the Wolf administration's emergency response.

It also delved deeper into the political power struggles and legal maneuvers that colored the second year of mitigation measures.

Here are some of the year's other Spotlight PA highlights:

» Pa. overcharged millions of dollars in unemployment interest payments

» FBI probe of Pa.'s biggest pension seeks evidence of kickbacks, bribery

» The coming crisis in dementia care and why Pa. is woefully unprepared

» Ongoing coverage of Harrisburg's pivotal redistricting work

» Pa. lawmakers spend millions on law firms that back their campaigns

» Prosecutor waited months after report to charge protest shooter

» Facebook CEO helped Pa. counties in 2020. GOP lawmakers cry foul.

» Election directors with little training step in to fill Pa.'s many vacancies

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA
HATE MOVEMENT: Stickers telling white students at Millersville University to "never apologize" for being white are linked to an anonymous online hate group called the "Hundred-Handers," LNP reports. In October, the paper revealed another group of white supremacists, members of a new tailor-made political party, held a secret rally at a privately owned barn less than two miles from Millersville's campus.

MAP MOVES: Gov. Tom Wolf confirmed his opposition to a House GOP-proffered rewrite of Pennsylvania's U.S. congressional map, panning the proposal as "heavily skewed" and the actions of its Republican usher as "disgraceful," per City & State. Wolf didn't vow to veto the map if it reaches his desk, but his comments raise fresh doubts about the plan's viability with precious little time before key 2022 deadlines.

LOST GAINS: Advocates who hoped a parallel redistricting process would yield state legislative maps that better reflect and empower Pennsylvania's growing Latino population tell the AP they're worried current proposals would do the opposite, shrinking existing Latino majorities in certain strongholds. The chair of the bipartisan commission in charge, meanwhile, is responding to a barrage of unrelated GOP attacks.

SCOPA SPEAKS: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has released its rationale for overturning the Wolf administration's school mask mandate, writing in a unanimous opinion that Wolf's Department of Health did not have the authority to issue such an order without a disaster declaration in place or explicit permission from the legislature, PennLive reports. Both options were cut off for Wolf by the legislature's GOP majority.

ON TRIAL: A landmark trial that could alter how Pennsylvania funds its public schools is on break until next year. In a roundup of takeaways from the first month of testimony, The Inquirer reports plaintiffs say scarce and unequal resources have created stark achievement gaps, while the state lawmakers named as defendants question how districts use the money they already receive and whether all kids need to know biology.

» AP: Racial reckoning turns to Pa.'s roadside historical markers

» INQUIRER: Attorneys have left DA Krasner's office in droves

» MORNING CALL: Lawsuit claims forced labor at Mennonite farm

» NEW YORK: Read the magazine's viral profile of Sen. candidate Oz

» STATEIMPACT: Problem-plagued pipeline will be fully built in 2022
Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org. Love the riddler? Chip in and become a member of Spotlight PA so we can keep the good times rolling.

CAR POOL (Case No. 127)Two fathers and two sons are in a car traveling along I-83 in York County, but there are only three people in the car. How?

Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: 0 or 3. (Find last week's clue here.)

Congrats to Annette M., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Philip C., Fred O., Alberta V., Susan N., Burnetta S., Joe S., Michele M., George S., Elizabeth W., Michael H., Annette I., Bruce B., Beth T., Dennis F., William D., Lou R., Irene T., Joel S., Barbara M., Joseph M., Kathy M., Norman S., Robert K., Jodie K., Lynda G., Mary B., and Jon N.
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