Did you know Spotlight PA is a nonprofit? Learn more about our nonpartisan journalism »
Skip to main content
Main content
The Capitol

From the archives 2020

Effort to track police use of force in Pa. would lack racial data, public transparency

by Cynthia Fernandez of Spotlight PA |

Black Democrats who demanded action in the wake of Floyd’s death called the reform a first step.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Philadelphia Inquirer

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and PennLive/Patriot-News. Sign up for our free weekly newsletter.

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania may take a major step toward overseeing the greatest authority afforded police officers — the legal right to harm another person — by requiring that all instances of use of force be tracked and reported.

The bill, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny), would require departments to report all such incidents to the State Police. The State Police, in turn, would deliver an annual report to lawmakers and the attorney general about how often officers used force and when it resulted in serious injury or death.

The Senate unanimously passed the bill Wednesday. The House is not expected to take it up before breaking for summer recess, but could return early to consider it, according to a GOP spokesperson.

Costa’s effort would align Pennsylvania more closely with other states that track use of force in order to identify overly aggressive officers and intervene before a pattern of excessive force results in harm and costly lawsuits.

But the measure falls short of broader efforts elsewhere, such as in New Jersey, to provide the public with more transparency. For one, the bill as written would not make the annual State Police report available to the public.

That would “leave us still in the dark,” Elizabeth Randol, legislative director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said.

The bill also does not require departments to track the race or gender of people that officers use force against.

Randol said that would obscure if force is being “meted out disproportionately to certain groups of people.” Because of that, the legislation falls short of the “pointed reason that is being articulated by all of these protests.”

Costa said Tuesday he did pursue the inclusion of language on race and ethnicity, but “had to reach a consensus.”

“Our goal was to get things done,” he said. “And this is one of the things that is important to a lot of folks, capturing this information so we have a better handle on the scope.”

The Senate on Wednesday also passed a bill that would require every local police department to develop and post online a use-of-force policy. Paul McCauley, a professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania who trains officers, said “the vast majority” of departments already have these policies in place.

For that reason, McCauley said he doesn’t believe the legislation if signed into law would influence use of force “on the street in any substantial way.”

The measure would also limit chokeholds to situations where deadly force is warranted. Sen. Sharif Street (D., Philadelphia), the legislation’s sponsor, said George Floyd’s graphic death in Minneapolis highlighted the need for a statewide policy.

“The majority of local police officers do not use chokeholds — it is not part of the routine policy and procedures of those police departments,” he said Tuesday. “But what I want to do is create a circumstance where it was clearly unacceptable. It needs to be clear that it is not an acceptable form of restraint, and it’s effectively gone.”

Similar reform measures were first introduced after the police killing of Antwon Rose II outside Pittsburgh in 2018, and until now have languished without consideration in legislative committees.

But in less than a month — as protests raged across Pennsylvania and the nation, and Black representatives blocked the start of a voting session to demand change — the legislature has fast-tracked four reform measures.

The House on Wednesday gave final approval to two of those bills, including one that would create a confidential police misconduct database. The other, sponsored by Rep. Dan Williams (D., Chester), would require local police to undergo implicit bias training and learn how to recognize child abuse.

Black Democrats who demanded action in the wake of Floyd’s death called the legislation a first step.

“This bill alone will not merely appease the thousands of individuals who have been marching and demanding systemic change in our systems throughout this commonwealth and throughout this country,” Rep. Austin Davis (D., Allegheny) said on the floor. “Until we go further and address issues like use of force [and] arbitration … we will truly not begin to see the systemic change that we want to as a society.”

Both Randol of the ACLU and McCauley, the former police officer, said the state should reform the law governing when officers can use deadly force.

A measure introduced by Rep. Summer Lee (D., Allegheny) would allow police to use deadly force only when an officer needs to “protect himself or another from imminent death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping or sexual intercourse compelled by force or threat.” The bill has been sitting in committee for more than a year and faces an uphill battle.

“Maybe something’s better than nothing,” Randol said. “But if you’re nibbling around the edges of something that’s sort of already broken at the core, it’s only reinforcing some of those elements without ever attending to them.”

100% ESSENTIAL: Spotlight PA relies on funding from foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results. If you value this reporting, please give a gift today at spotlightpa.org/donate.

Get the top news from across Pennsylvania, plus some fun and a puzzle, all in one free daily email newsletter.