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From the archives 2020

Everything you need to know about Pa. police reform efforts by the legislature

by Cynthia Fernandez of Spotlight PA |

Democrats have called the measures first steps, as they press GOP leadership to go further and take up more complex issues like curtailing when officers can use deadly force.
KALIM BHATTI / The Philadelphia Inquirer

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HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf has signed two police reform measures spurred by protests, both inside and outside the Capitol, in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.

The legislation, passed overwhelmingly by Pennsylvania’s House and Senate, is aimed at preventing officers with egregious misconduct in their past from jumping from one department to another as well as strengthening training. Democrats have called the measures first steps, as they press GOP leadership to go further and take up more complex issues like curtailing when officers can use deadly force.

Two other reform bills that unanimously passed the Senate in June are still pending before the House. Lawmakers there have until December to pass the measures before the legislative session ends and all pending legislation is thrown out.

Similar reform measures introduced after the police killing of Antwon Rose II outside Pittsburgh in 2018 had languished without consideration in legislative committees until protests over Floyd’s death erupted across Pennsylvania and the country.

Bills signed by Gov. Tom Wolf

Wolf said the measures he signed Tuesday “make progress in keeping every Pennsylvanian safe,” while citing executive actions he took in June to strengthen oversight of law enforcement agencies under his purview.

But there is still more work to be done, Wolf said.

“We have made progress in six weeks,” he said. “But we are far from the finish line. My executive action and the two new laws that I’m going to sign in just a few minutes are still not enough to halt the systemic racism and oppression that exists throughout our commonwealth.”

Those two laws are:

House Bill 1841, sponsored by Rep. Harry Readshaw (D., Allegheny) and Rep. Chris Rabb (D., Philadelphia): This legislation requires all law enforcement agencies in the state to consult a new database with information on disciplinary actions, performance evaluations, and attendance records during a background check.

Currently, there is no uniform way for local police departments in Pennsylvania to share instances of officer misconduct with other agencies, meaning someone fired for an egregious reason could find a job with another department.

“We can’t say that this database would have saved Antwon’s life,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said Tuesday. “But I trust his mom … [who] believes that this bill will save lives in the future. She’s right.”

The legislation also requires an agency to disclose information about any investigations into current or former officers in writing. The effort, however, stops short of making misconduct records available to the public, a move recently taken in New York and New Jersey.

Wolf endorsed the database legislation, as did Shapiro and the heads of powerful police unions for the state and Philadelphia. Though a positive step forward, the database does little to further public accountability and transparency, experts say.

The bill does make available under the state’s open-records law “hiring reports” that must be compiled if a department chooses to hire an applicant with a criminal conviction or binding disciplinary action for wrongdoing, including excessive force, discrimination, and sexual abuse.

The Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission (MPOETC), which sets statewide training and certification standards, will determine how detailed those reports will be.

House Bill 1910, sponsored by Rep. Dan Williams (D., Chester): The other measure requires MPOETC to train local officers on how to treat people of diverse backgrounds and requires annual in-service training on use-of-force and de-escalation techniques.

But more training doesn’t necessarily mean better outcomes. Andy Hoover, a spokesperson for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, referenced the death of Osaze Osagie, a 29-year-old black man with chronic mental illness who was shot and killed by State College police in 2019.

“The officers had what is considered the gold standard of police training on [mental health] crisis intervention. And still they killed him, with no [mental health] professional on the scene,” Hoover said. “In that case, at least, more training failed to save Osaze’s life.”

In an internal June newsletter, MPOETC training unit director Isaac Suydam wrote that developing training for officers is difficult and training does not always change outcome.

“[S]ometimes we fall into the trap of believing operational mistakes indicate a lack of effective training, and while they may, that is not always the case,” Suydam said. “Sometimes, despite the training they have received, officers make bad choices.”

Reform legislation still pending

Two other reform measures unanimously passed the Senate on June 24 and were referred to the House Judiciary Committee on June 29.

Mike Straub, a spokesperson for House Republicans, said in early July the chair and members of the Judiciary Committee “will determine the next steps on those bills, and any future legislation on the topic.”

Senate Bill 459, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny): This legislation would require police departments to report all use-of-force 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.

A spokesperson for Costa said the report would be made available to the public, while a State Police spokesperson said that was not the case. There is no language guaranteeing the report’s release to the public currently written in the bill.

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

Senate Bill 1205, sponsored by Sen. Sharif Street (D., Philadelphia): This bill would require every local police department to develop and post online a use-of-force policy. It also limits the use of chokeholds to situations where deadly force is warranted.

“The majority of local police officers do not use chokeholds — it is not part of the routine policy and procedures of those police departments,” Street said on the Senate floor in June. “But what I want to do is create a circumstance where it was clearly unacceptable.”

Paul McCauley, a professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania who trains officers, told Spotlight PA last month “the vast majority” of departments already have these policies. He doesn’t believe the legislation would influence use of force “on the street in any substantial way.”

Legislation introduced but not considered

Lawmakers have introduced a number of reform bills that have not been considered in committee as of mid-July. Senate Democrats have also summarized a number of proposals for legislation that hasn’t been formally introduced yet.

House Bill 1664, sponsored by Reps. Ed Gainey and Summer Lee (D., Allegheny): This bill would permit a police officer to use deadly force only to “protect himself or another from imminent death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping or sexual intercourse compelled by force or threat.”

Senate Bill 611, sponsored by Sen. Art Haywood (D., Philadelphia); House Bill 1382, sponsored by Reps. Brian Sims (D., Philadelphia) and Summer Lee (D., Allegheny): This legislation would appoint a special prosecutor to handle cases when police use deadly force.

Senate Bill 472, sponsored by Sen. Jim Brewster (D., Allegheny): This bill would establish a grant program to incentivize small municipal departments to consolidate.

Senate Bill 482, sponsored by Sen. Jim Brewster (D., Allegheny): This bill would supplement part-time police pay through a grant program.

This story was updated on July 14 to include information about Gov. Tom Wolf signing two reform measures.

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