The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Police chief in Pa. placed on leave after one of his officers was charged in Capitol riot

The day after patrolman Joseph W. Fischer allegedly stood at “the front of the pack pushing against the police” during the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, he boasted to a contact that he had “no regrets,” despite his concerns that the FBI might arrest him. In a Facebook message, Fischer indicated he had already defended himself to his boss, the police chief in North Cornwall Township, Pa.

“I told him I have no regrets,” Fischer wrote, according to a federal criminal complaint filed Friday.

Fischer was eventually arrested on multiple federal charges and suspended without pay. Less expected was that the boss to whom Fischer allegedly defended himself is off the job as well.

North Cornwall Township Police Chief John Leahy was temporarily placed on paid administrative leave, the township’s board of supervisors announced in a news release Monday. The board, which did not respond to a request for comment, did not explain why Leahy had been placed on leave, saying only that an interim chief would serve in his place until the township’s inquiry into Fischer’s alleged actions concludes.

It was unclear whether Leahy, who did not respond to a request for comment, knew about Fischer’s alleged involvement, but the dynamic underscores the thorny questions that have emerged in police departments across the country in the wake of the Capitol riots, after more than a dozen off-duty police officers were found to have taken part, according to analysis by The Washington Post.

Board supervisors said Friday that none of the township’s officials knew of Fischer’s alleged actions before his arrest — a claim contradicted by the FBI’s charging documents, which included Fischer’s Facebook exchange.

According to court records, Fischer wrote that he “may need a job” after “word got out that I was at the rally,” indicating that one of his friends alerted his department.

“Did your job say something to you?” a Facebook user asked Fischer on Jan. 7.

“Yep … chief did,” Fischer reportedly replied. “I told him if that is the price I have to pay to voice my freedom and liberties which I was born with and thusly taken away then then must be the price.”

The Post obtained hours of video footage, some exclusively, and placed it within a digital 3-D model of the building. (Video: The Washington Post)

Some police chiefs are feeling new pressure to search within their ranks and root out officers who engage in criminal behavior or nurse extremist views. Within police departments, supervisors and the rank and file are weighing fraternal loyalty against the reality that some of their own may have violated their sworn duty.

The riot resulted in the death of a Capitol Police officer, Brian D. Sicknick, and four other people.

There is no nationwide standard for how departments would discipline officers believed to have taken part in the Capitol siege, whether criminally charged or not. North Cornwall Township supervisors said Fischer’s suspension was triggered by a Pennsylvania law known as the Confidence in Law Enforcement Act.

Jill McCorkel, a professor of sociology and criminology at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, told The Washington Post that Fischer’s suspension would be automatic, regardless of any action the police chief did or did not take.

“It’s something that doesn’t reside within the discretion of the chief, because it’s a state law,” McCorkel said. She noted that the law has what she called a loophole that allows officers who undergo an “accelerated rehabilitation” program to sometimes remain on the job, even pending conviction.

Fischer was taken into custody Friday and detained pending a Tuesday hearing. It was not clear whether he had an attorney. He faces five federal charges, including obstructing law enforcement during “civil disorder.”