Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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Claysburg bear fiasco makes global news

Deborah Weisberg

Southwest Correspondent

Claysburg, Pa. – Their judgment and marksmanship under fire,
local police in this Blair County community are taking a public
mauling over their killing of a black bear, which they say wouldn’t
have occurred if it hadn’t been for the mob mentality of
bystanders.

One eyewitness who got into a dust-up with officers after the
June 17 shooting has been charged with disorderly conduct, and
several men in a pickup truck believed to have triggered the
unfortunate chain of events also were expected to be charged,
according to Greenfield Township police chief Ronald Givler.

Videos of the killing of the bear – and 150 to 200 angry
bystanders – have surfaced on YouTube, MSNBC, and other media,
while stuffed bears with “Don’t Shoot Me” signs have popped up
around Claysburg.

Locals in this rural hunting community remain divided over
whether police acted properly when they peppered the bear – and a
nearby warehouse wall and vehicle – with ammunition. Of a reported
20 rounds, just seven hit the bear.

Givler said officers had only handguns and shotguns, not
high-powered rifles that would have made their task easier. But, he
said, also they wouldn’t have had to shoot at all had bystanders
followed orders and dispersed.

“Can you put four or five officers against 200 people and still
control a bear ” he said. “The answer is no.”

“It’s given a black eye to the community,” said reporter Rick
Leberfinger of the Altoona Mirror, whose newspaper ran an editorial
cartoon lampooning local police. It depicts two officers standing
over a dead bear, with one asking ‘Do you think he’s dead ‘ and the
other responding, ‘I hope so. We’re all out of ammo.'”

According to Givler, officers responded to a 911 call about a
black bear running through town the night of June 17. He said
police later learned that a pickup truck with men in it had forced
the bear into town and that a female bear – possibly the male’s
companion – had been struck by a car earlier and later was
euthanized.

The male eventually ran up into a tree near the McCabe Trucking
Company warehouse on Bedford Street and a crowd of people began to
gather as officers from several communities and the Pennsylvania
Game Commission arrived on the scene. The bear was hit with
tranquilizer darts and descended the tree.

And that’s when the conflict started.

“Witnesses say the bear was not acting in an aggressive manner,
that it took off over a couple of fences and went into the trucking
company parking lot and was heading toward the woodline when police
gunfire erupted,” said Leberfinger.

“The police and the Game Commission told me the bear turned to
face the crowd.and was a threat to public safety.”

Givler said he couldn’t confirm whether the bear was snapping
its jaws, as had initially been reported, but that all seven bullet
wounds were to the bear’s front, indicating it was facing offers
when it was shot. (Two bullet were subsequently fired to the bear’s
head.)

“Officers had the bear cornered and were hoping the tranquilizer
would take effect, but when it didn’t, our orders from the Game
Commission were shoot the bear so it doesn’t get out,” Givler
said.

According to Leberfinger, “The crowd applauded when they shot
the bear with tranquilizers, then become loud and contentious when
the gunfire erupted. You could hear F-bombs.”

Don DiVencenzo was in the crowd with his wife and his four-
year-old grandson, protesting the shooting. The self-employed
construction worker wound up in handcuffs.

He said he and an officer argued, and the officer then punched
him in the chest. “When I turned to walk away,” he said, “the next
thing I know he threw me to the ground and was punching me.”

“My grandson and all the other kids were crying and
screaming.”

As for the shooting, Game Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser said
his agency isn’t about to second-guess police, given the size of
the crowd they had to deal with and concerns about public safety
when the tranquilizer did not immediately subdue the bear.

He also tried to put the killing into a different perspective.
“While unfortunate for this one bear,” he said. “we do have a
statewide bear population of between 14,000 and 15,000
animals.”

(To see videos of the incident, go to YouTube (www.youtube.com)
and search for “Claysburg bear.”)

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