A federal civil rights lawsuit over the fatal shooting of Richland resident Charity Thome in March 2020 appears to be on track for a November trial.
The lawsuit alleges that Pennsylvania State Police troopers Jay Splain and Matthew Haber were not justified in using deadly force against Thome. It was Splain’s third fatal shooting as a state trooper.
A fourth shooting in November 2021, in which Jonestown resident Andy Dzwonchyk was killed, led to its own federal civil suit. After Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf determined the shooting to be justified late last August, following a nine-month investigation that had apparently stalled for some time, Pennsylvania State Police days later settled the suit for $1.75 million.
Another lawsuit, over the 2017 Northampton County shooting of Anthony Ardo, remains in active litigation.
- DA silent on why investigation of 2nd fatal PSP shooting is apparently stalled (Aug. 10, 2022)
- DA says Nov. 2021 shooting of Andy Dzwonchyk by PSP trooper was justified (Aug. 31, 2022)
- State agrees to $1.75M civil settlement over PSP trooper’s fatal shooting of Andy Dzwonchyk in ’21 incident, attorney says (Sept. 2, 2022)
Since the Dzwonchyk suit was settled, limited information about the case appeared on the court docket. For the Thome lawsuit, however, the parties have proceeded with pretrial discovery, in which they exchange documents and evidence and take depositions, which may end up on the public court record.
This pretrial discovery has revealed more information about how Pennsylvania State Police reassigned Splain in the wake of the shootings.
LebTown and other media outlets had been repeatedly informed simply that Splain is currently on “administrative duty,” which a Pennsylvania State Police spokesperson previously told LebTown is standard policy for a trooper who is involved in an officer-involved shooting that remains under investigation.
Now we know exactly what that administrative duty is.
At his February 2022 deposition, Splain said he was a regional coordinator with the Member Assistance Program.
According to Pennsylvania State Police literature, the Member Assistance Program exists to provide confidential assistance to personnel and their immediate family members who are experiencing personal, emotional, psychological, or related medical problems.
A state police spokesperson confirmed this assignment to LebTown and offered his own brief description of the program.
“The mission of MAP is to provide assistance to all PSP personnel and their families by providing peer-based assistance and resource referrals which could be a health professional, lawyer, financial counselor, clergy, or any other resource needed,” said Lt. Adam Reed, PSP director of communications.
Increased utilization of the Member Assistance Program was a strategic priority for the department over its last several years, according to its 2019-22 strategic plan. The program was established in 1986.
Reed said it was “one of the first programs of its kind to use organized, confidential, peer assistance by, and for, its own personnel in law enforcement.”
Reed said that Splain is one of seven full-time regional coordinators, who work with approximately 91 part-time peer contacts. Reed said that there are also 63 volunteer civilian chaplains who are part of the program.
Reed said that the coordinators and peers receive continuing training relating to stress management, mental health, and crisis intervention.
According to a LebTown review of LinkedIn profiles for other regional coordinators, in this role Splain would coordinate services and provide critical incident stress management for events like line-of-duty deaths, police shootings, and child death investigations.
Critical incidents are statutorily defined as:
A situation responded to by a law enforcement officer which presents or involves either the death or serious bodily injury of an individual or the imminent potential of such death or serious bodily injury, or any situation faced by a law enforcement officer in the course of duty which causes or may cause the law enforcement officer to experience unusually strong negative emotional reactions.
Based on this description, it seems likely that each of the four fatal shootings by Splain constituted a critical incident.
Family representatives of the two fatal shootings that took place in Lebanon County have said that Splain was not able to adequately respond to situations where a member of the public was undergoing a mental health crisis.
Thome estate lawyer Thomas Kline spoke to the New York Times last year about Splain and Haber.
“Their job was to talk her out of the vehicle and into safety and instead, they did just the opposite, which was to fire multiple rounds of bullets into her pinned-down vehicle, leaving her defenseless and tragically dead,” said Kline to the Times.
Last summer, Dzwonchyk’s sister Autumn Krouse told LebTown that her impression was Splain didn’t have the capacity to deal with a mental health episode, or any level of patience or tolerance for one.
“There is no place for someone to kind of have a nervous breakdown,” said Krouse. “The common thread is these people were all unraveling and it feels in our society there is not a time nor a place where that is a good idea. It seems like such a deeper problem.”
Contacted last week by LebTown, Krouse said she was glad to learn Splain’s exact job title and duties within the ranks of the PSP, and she was not surprised by the assignment.
“Upon considering his new position, what else are they supposed to do with him?” Krause asked. “They haven’t fired him, they clearly aren’t going to, and this is almost, it seems, like a way to – just like he got officer of the year – it seems like a way to keep a lot of dignity wrapped up in the entire situation.
“I feel like it is a way for them to say, ‘Look at all that he’s been through, and now he’s able to help others.’ It’s almost like gaslighting the public, in all honesty.”
Dzwonchyk’s estate attorney Paul Messing said in an email to LebTown on Tuesday that while he was aware of Splain’s assignment, he didn’t have anything else to add to what he had already said during an interview last December following the settlement agreement.
Messing said in December 2022 that police unions representing their members make disciplinary actions difficult.
“This is a real catch-22,” Messing told LebTown last year. “In situations like this, the administrative side of law enforcement agencies are severely restricted in the disciplinary actions and the assignments they can make by restrictions imposed by collective bargaining agreements. This is true in Pennsylvania and in many other states.”
Attorneys representing the Thome estate in its civil lawsuit declined comment.
Pennsylvania State Police would not answer any questions about how and why Splain was assigned to be a regional coordinator for the Member Assistance Program or whether the agency believed that his guidance to peer contacts as coordinator, or directly to other troopers, could be prejudiced based on his being party to several civil suits.
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