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From the archives 2020

Wolf will appoint misconduct watchdog, establish commission to oversee Pa. state troopers, correctional officers

by Staff of Spotlight PA |

Gov. Tom Wolf marched with demonstrators against police brutality in Harrisburg on June 3, 2020.
Office of Gov. Tom Wolf

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HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf will appoint a watchdog and create a commission to investigate alleged misconduct by the Pennsylvania State Police and other law enforcement agencies under his purview, he announced Thursday.

But additional reform — including changing when officers can use deadly force, improving access to body-camera footage, and strengthening oversight of hundreds of municipal departments statewide — will need approval from the Republican-controlled legislature.

The executive action comes in response to calls by legislative Democrats to adopt reforms in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“Today, I’m taking steps to address concerns about long-standing violence and oppression against Pennsylvanians of color,” Wolf said at a news conference. “This is a call for reflection, improvement, and most of all of learning. We must rise to the challenge because too many people have lost faith in our public safety institutions and in our institutions, in general.”

The head of the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association said in a statement that Wolf’s Thursday announcement made it seem as if its members and all state law enforcement “are no better than those charged with Mr. Floyd’s death.”

“This is clear when he ignored his own order and marched in Harrisburg this week during a pandemic with people holding signs that read, ‘Blue Lives Murder,’” President David Kennedy said, referencing Wolf’s participation in a march and demonstration Wednesday.

Wolf told reporters he did not condone the sign and that he thinks the State Police are doing a “fine job.” The order also applies to the Department of Corrections, the Capitol Police, and probation and parole officers.

“This is not an effort to point a finger,” he said. “It’s an effort to build trust.”

Among the other actions announced Thursday, Wolf said he will “direct” all law enforcement academies to review curriculum and revise use-of-force trainings. He also backed the efforts of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, which earlier this week proposed dozens of changes to how law enforcement is trained, disciplined, and overseen.

The proposed measures are similar to those introduced after a police officer outside Pittsburgh shot and killed Antwon Rose II, an unarmed teen, in 2018. Those bills have not been taken up by the GOP-majority House and Senate.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro, with the heads of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh’s police departments as well as police union leaders, announced their support for legislation that would create a database of disciplinary actions that law enforcement agencies would access when making hiring decisions.

“Officers who engage in misconduct or use excessive force erode trust in law enforcement and make it harder for our communities to be and feel safe," the group — which includes Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert, and the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association — said in a statement released by Shapiro’s office.

“When they leave an agency or retire in lieu of termination, that record needs to go with them. We stand united in calling for reform of the hiring process so that law enforcement agencies have the information to make informed decisions about the personnel they hire.”

Shapiro told Spotlight PA the endorsement is the result of months of bringing lawmakers of color and law enforcement representatives together to address reform.

“I realized they had never sat down and talked to one another,” he said. “It was really stunning to me that they had never sat down and had a real dialogue. … As we discussed this idea of a registry, there seemed to the seed of a possible agreement.”

The six months of work paid off Thursday, Shapiro said, when he called Rose’s mother.

“It was an incredibly emotional discussion, and I told her that I will never forget Antwon and that his legacy will lead to this reform, and he will always be remembered as having done something that helped others," Shapiro said.

There are already proposals in the House and Senate to create such a database. The Senate’s version, introduced by Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny), has been sitting in committee since March 2019. The House measure, from Rep. Chris Rabb (D., Philadelphia), has been waiting almost as long for consideration.

Rabb said it will be “politically hard” for Republicans to back away from the measure now that it has been endorsed by the statewide and Philadelphia chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police.

“If this leads to the enactment of a policy that can end the phenomena of police officers with checkered pasts taking the lives of black men and others, then this can create an opportunity for us to rebuild the public integrity of institutions that have been stained by indifference,” he said.

Mike Straub, a spokesperson for House Republicans, said lawmakers “strongly condemn acts of racism and violence” and thanked law enforcement. “We are inspired by the conversations occurring between police officers, law enforcement leaders, and community members across our commonwealth,” he said.

In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) said his caucus is “committed to engaging in a constructive conversation about how we move forward together.”

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