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Local Government

How Spotlight PA uncovered the chaos in a tiny Pa. borough after the hiring of Tamir Rice’s killer

by Min Xian of Spotlight PA State College |

People gather on the front lawn outside of the Tioga borough building.
Min Xian / Spotlight PA

This story was produced by the State College regional bureau of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to investigative and public-service journalism for Pennsylvania. Sign up for our regional newsletter, Talk of the Town.

Tioga borough made national headlines in early July and became known as the small town in Pennsylvania that hired the police officer who in 2014 shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. The attention on Tioga quickly faded, but my work at Spotlight PA was just getting started.

The news of Timothy Loehmann’s hiring was significant, and initial reporting presented a myriad of questions — including how a news article printed an incorrect spelling of Loehmann’s name the month prior, and whether background checks had been properly conducted.

Tioga Mayor David Wilcox’s insistence that some council members had misled him about the officer’s identity signaled larger issues were in play. A letter to then-Council President Steve Hazlett from Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who will be the state’s next governor, made erroneous claims suggesting Tioga had broken the law in making the hire.

At the peak of the controversy, I arrived in Tioga — the first of six trips — to attend the Borough Council’s special meeting on July 12 looking for answers, but left more puzzled than before.

I went back to Tioga for more council meetings, filed four Right-to-Know requests, and had conversations with experts and government officials to gain a better sense of how municipal government should work, and how it had broken in Tioga.

A breakthrough came in September, when former Tioga Council Member Bob Wheeler agreed to speak on the record about details he said were missing from news reports.

Some sources who were originally reluctant to speak to me believed the bad reputation Tioga received was based on partial information and saw the need to set the record straight. They led me to more documents and helped make a perplexing picture clearer.

I slowly built up an understanding of how Tioga’s local government had been breaking down. I reviewed two years of Tioga Borough Council meeting minutes and Facebook posts by officials and residents. What I found was that the borough government was collapsing under the weight of personal vendettas, and the hiring of Loehmann exposed long-simmering problems in a highly visible way.

Spending the time it takes to get the full story and getting it right is what sets Spotlight PA’s journalism apart. Checking factual details supported by documentation and corroborating first-hand accounts beyond rumors was especially critical in the writing and editing process. The investigation could not have been fair and comprehensive without the dedication of my impeccable team of editors.

With help from Wellsboro Gazette reporter Donna LaSchander, I was able to capture a sense of what Tioga is like. My reporting benefited from her knowledge and kindness.

In the end, this Spotlight PA investigation reveals how quickly a small-town government can collapse under the weight of personal conflicts and vendettas, and raises the question of whether taxpayers are best served by Pennsylvania’s more than 2,500 cities, towns, townships, and boroughs that sorely lack critical oversight of their workings.

SUPPORT THIS JOURNALISM and help us reinvigorate local news in north-central Pennsylvania at spotlightpa.org/statecollege. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability and public-service journalism that gets results.

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