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Culture of racism in Harrisburg, one resident charges

updated: 11/3/2017 10:54 AM

HARRISBURG -- Harrisburg residents addressed city council Thursday, saying they still had concerns over a social media post made by the city's police chief in mid-October.

At Thursday's meeting, Harrisburg resident Simone Neal, a high school English teacher in Marion, said she still was concerned that the post, along with additional behavior by city employees as well as council members indicated systemic racism within the community.

She said she did not want people to think her criticism was directed at Police Chief David Morris specifically, but at a local culture that dismisses people of color.

"There are a number of issues in this city that never have been fully addressed," Neal, who is black, said.

In October, Morris posted a photo and some language on another officer's Facebook page, suggesting the city of Chicago would replace sirens on police cars with the national anthem, causing suspects to stop and kneel.

It was posted on a semi-private message thread, but was viewed and shared by enough people that residents addressed it at the city council meeting two weeks ago, saying it was a racist comment.

Neal, meanwhile, said there had been an incident last year in which a teacher slapped a black child for laughing out loud. She said in another incident a bus driver told two 9-year-old boys that the driver couldn't wait for them to be deported and sent back "over that wall."

She also said at least one incident of a city commissioner publicly using the N word.

Neal said comments made by Morris in a news article caused additional concerns when he made reference to "good black people" and said the only people who complained about his post did so because they had relatives who had been arrested.

Prior to Neal's comments, Police Commissioner Beth Montfort had announced that Morris had been verbally reprimanded for his actions, and that he, Montfort and all department personnel would be taking a cultural sensitivity training course.

Morris referred any questions to the mayor's office.

Commissioner Mike Weirauch then addressed Neal and those in attendance, admitting that he was the commissioner who had used the racial epithet.

"I used it in anger and it was a poor choice of words," Weirauch said. "At that moment I was sitting on my porch and there were two young men fighting across the street, one black and one white. What I was mostly mad about was the officer not doing anything about it, but it was a poor choice of words. I was wrong."

The council also had vigorous discussion regarding a motion by Mayor John McPeek to hire two new police officers, citing recent crime and the department being overworked and being down three active officers. McPeek proposed the city hire Logan T. Leverett and Mychal S. Gooch effective Dec. 1.

During discussion, Montfort said she wanted to wait until an audit of the city's self-funded insurance was done for fear that the city might have additional expenses, but McPeek said the results of the insurance audit had no bearing on whether the city can afford to hire two new officers.

Montfort said the two would be hired at the next council meeting. Eventually the motion died for lack of a second.