Judge orders York City Police trial board to issue findings in Clayton Swartz case

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

The internal police trial board that cleared a York City officer of reenacting the death of a Black man in police custody has been ordered by a York County judge to submit its findings in writing.

The judge called the board's submitted findings "wholly insufficient."

State law requires that such decisions, which fall under the Local Agency Law, "shall contain findings and the reason" for an internal board's decisions, according to Common Pleas Judge Kathleen J. Prendergast.

Her written opinion was docketed Friday in the county prothonotary's office.

"Upon review of prior case law, there is no doubt that Trial Board's findings are wholly insufficient and do not comply with the statutory requirements of the Local Agency Law," she wrote.

Prendergast's written opinion also deals a blow to the defense team of Officer Clayton Swartz, which has argued and maintains that a county judge doesn't have the authority to hear an appeal in this case and that the three-officer internal trial board's decision is final.

York City Police Chief Troy Bankert, left, and Officer Clayton Swartz as officials investigate a fatal shooting reported near the corner of South West and West Princess Streets in York City, Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. York City Mayor Michael Helfrich said the shooting resulted in the death of an adult male and an injured juvenile who was transported to York Hospital. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Appeal is allowed: But that's not the case, according to the judge.

"The Commonwealth Court has held that decisions of police disciplinary trial boards are appealable to the Court of Common Pleas under the Local Agency Law," Prendergast wrote.

The Pennsylvania Code allows for common-pleas judges to hear appeals from government agencies, and exceptions to that rule aren't relevant here, she noted.

"Therefore, this Court is vested with jurisdiction to hear appeals of local agency by any person with a direct interest in such adjudication," Prendergast wrote.

She also dismissed a defense argument that York City waived its ability to appeal any procedural defects of the trial board's decision.

Prendergast said other arguments in the case by York City and Swartz's defense are moot at this point, and she dismissed them without prejudice. That means either side can refile later.

More:Case remains in limbo against York City cop accused of mocking George Floyd's death

Not 'swept under rug': "Some people have said the city buried this. It's not true," York City Mayor Michael Helfrich said Monday during his weekly Facebook Live message to the community. "Unfortunately in the court system, justice moves slowly, no matter how this plays out. … I don't want anyone to think that anything got swept under the rug."

Swartz's attorneys, Ed Paskey and Douglas France, did not return a message seeking comment for this article. Paskey also represents the White Rose Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, which is the city police officers' union.

"The trial board will have neutral counsel appointed to assist them with drafting their findings," Philip Given, the mayor's chief of staff, told The York Dispatch on Monday.

After the trial board submits its written findings, York City officials will review them and determine the next steps, Given said.

More:York City appeals not-guilty finding for cop accused of reenacting George Floyd's death

More:Union: York officer 'proven' not guilty of mocking George Floyd's death, says city can't appeal

More:Trial board clears York City police officer of wrongdoing

The background: The internal trial board on Sept. 10 cleared Swartz of wrongdoing. Its decision came after a nine-hour hearing on Aug. 19.

Swartz remains on unpaid administrative leave, Given confirmed Monday.

The FOP has filed a grievance against York City, demanding Swartz be reinstated with full back pay, according to court records.

New art memorializing the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter covers the north side of the Penn Street art bridge, Wednesday, June 3, 2020. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

Three people allege that Swartz and his then-fianceé's uncle, Christopher Owens, role-played the May 25 Minneapolis Police-custody death of George Floyd during a graduation party in the York City home of the fianceé's family. 

Floyd died after a police officer kneeled on his neck for about eight minutes as Floyd repeatedly said he couldn't breathe.

Swartz was 26 years old at the time of the May 30 party; Owens was 48.

Two of the three people who made the accusation against Swartz have confirmed that they weren't asked to attend or testify at the trial-board hearing, or even told about it by city officials. The third accuser could not be reached.

More:York City cop accused of acting out George Floyd's death at party

'I can't breathe': Swartz told an internal-affairs inspector he didn't reenact or mock Floyd's death, according to court documents.

Owens told investigators and The York Dispatch that he made the comment "I can't breathe" while lying on a couch, but that Swartz — who was standing next to him — did nothing but "chuckle" in a placating way at Owens, who is biracial.

All three accusers told The York Dispatch they saw Swartz put his knee against Owens' neck and heard him ask Owens if he could breathe and if he was dead yet while Owens convulsed on the couch.

Both sides point to what they say are inconsistencies and issues regarding statements made by witnesses on the other side. 

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.