Delaware County and Darby Township officials were joined by Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon at a press conference Thursday to denounce racist remarks said by firefighters from the Briarcliffe Fire Company.
After learning about the disparaging comments from members of the Goodwill Fire Company Wednesday afternoon, the township commissioners voted to suspend Briarcliffe for 30 days, pending an investigation.
Delaware County DA Jack Stollsteimer promised at the press conference that a criminal investigation would be done.
“Whether or not a crime occurred, hate speech is morally wrong,” said Stollsteimer. “And it doesn’t reflect the people who live here in Darby Township. And it really doesn’t reflect the people who live here in Delaware County. And it really is a small number of people who hate so much they would spew this hatred out there.”
Tim Boyce, director of Delaware County Emergency Services, assured residents that other fire companies will fill in and there will be no gaps in services while Briarcliffe is suspended.
Perhaps most egregious among the racist comments were disparaging slurs about the name of Fanta Bility, the 8-year-old Sharon Hill girl who was caught in the crossfire as police discharged their weapons toward a crowd dispersing from an Academy Park football game on Aug. 27, 2001. Those officers were fired and now face manslaughter charges.
Bruce L. Castor Jr., a lawyer for the Bility family, released a statement from the family Thursday evening, saying the family is “appalled by the audio recordings.”
“Fanta was a bright, bubbly, innocent child who looked forward to a life filled with helping others who were hurting or injured — before being killed by careless actions of three Sharon Hill Police officers. A kind and loving girl, Fanta brightened the lives of everyone she met. To speak of her with such disrespect shines the light of shame on those people at the firehouse making the remarks and reflects negatively on those good and true first responders who pledge their lives to the service of all members of the community.
“Americans from every walk of life and of all ideological persuasions should join her family in mourning Fanta’s death and in echoing their calls for justice. By brazenly mocking Fanta and her death, some associated with Briarcliffe Fire Department did a disservice to the community they are sworn to protect, thereby reopening wounds from that fateful night when Fanta lay mortally wounded, though conscious, knowing her life drained away. To trivialize what this young girl endured that night gives new meaning to the descriptive ‘despicable,'” Castor said.
The family and Castor called for disciplinary action against those who made the remarks.
Delaware County Councilman Richard Womack, who lives in Darby, said the incident made it clear that racism has not disappeared, he said.
“Racism raised its ugly head,” said Womack. “We’re going to do whatever we can do to chop it off.”
Scanlon praised the state’s firefighters who “are renowned for their civic commitment” and the “endless hours of training.”
“That’s what makes this all the more horrifying,” said Scanlon. “It’s just a betrayal of the public trust. How can our neighbors trust these first responders will actually come to their aid in an emergency?”
And state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D-Delaware/Philadelphia) called the racist remarks “beyond troubling,” saying that he was offended and as a Black person, he was affected. He agreed with Womack that racism is still present these days.
“How mean-spirited it was to comment on the death of an 8-year-old child,” he said. “That some individuals chose to mock that is…beyond the pale.”
He praised and thanked the members of the Goodwill Fire Company for blowing the whistle on the racist words of their fellow firefighters. And, he said, other first responders “should not be condemned” because of the words of a few.