Criminal Justice

Lawmaker urges Pa. legislature to make it easier for attorney general to investigate police killings

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State Sen. Art Haywood said Monday that the USA Today Network’s PA Editorial Board “challenged” the state legislature to pass his bill.
State Sen. Art Haywood said Monday that the USA Today Network’s PA Editorial Board “challenged” the state legislature to pass his bill.
Commonwealth Media Services

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HARRISBURG — A Pennsylvania lawmaker is urging the legislature to take action on a bill that would make it easier for the state attorney general to investigate when police use deadly force, a measure he said would “restore trust in law enforcement.”

The legislation, introduced by state Sen. Art Haywood (D., Montgomery), would require district attorneys to investigate the deaths of people killed by police without the involvement of the officer’s department.

If a district attorney were to decide not to prosecute an officer, under the proposed legislation they would be required to refer the case to Pennsylvania’s attorney general.

Currently, Pennsylvania law allows district attorneys to ask the state attorney general’s office to investigate a case if, for instance, they believe there’s an “actual or apparent” conflict of interest. Law enforcement experts previously told Spotlight PA that this conflict is inherent because of the close relationship between district attorneys and police.

But the attorney general’s office cannot launch an inquiry without the district attorney signing off on the move.

Haywood said his bill would address the “appearance of bias” that erodes trust in law enforcement. He cited investigations into recent police killings, including those of Antwon Rose II outside of Pittsburgh, Ricardo Muñoz in Lancaster, and Christian Hall in the Poconos.

Spotlight PA and NBC News previously obtained video that shows Hall — a 19-year-old Chinese American experiencing a mental health crisis — had his hands in the air when State Police troopers shot and killed him in 2020.

Troopers from outside the local barracks investigated the killing and turned the findings over to the Monroe County district attorney, who ruled it justified. Hall’s parents publicly asked the Monroe County DA to send the case to the attorney general, but the DA did not do so.

Hall’s parents have filed a lawsuit accusing troopers of using excessive force and misleading the public.

“Our law enforcement system requires public trust,” Haywood said at a news conference Monday in the state Capitol, flanked by the bill’s supporters, including libertarian advocacy group Americans for Prosperity.

The legislation — which has 10 Democratic co-sponsors but no Republican backers — has been awaiting consideration in the Senate Law and Justice Committee since January. When approached in the Capitol on Monday, state Sen. Mike Regan (R., York), who chairs the committee, said he was not aware of the bill.

Haywood first introduced a version of the legislation in 2015 after police killed Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri.

The original bill would have mandated the attorney general investigate all police killings, but Haywood said that provision was removed from this version to make it more likely to pass.

The Pennsylvania State Law Enforcement Citizen Advisory Commission — a panel convened by Gov. Tom Wolf to review the actions and policies of state-run police agencies — earlier this year recommended independent investigations of police killings in response to a 2016 shooting by State Police. The department defended its current process to the committee.

Haywood noted during the news conference that the USA Today Network’s PA Editorial Board “challenged” the state legislature to pass his bill, and he said he hopes that has an impact.

“I’m committed to having trust in the law enforcement system in Pennsylvania,” Haywood said. “The citizens deserve it, law enforcement officers deserve to have a trusted system.”

Christina Baker is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association. Learn more about the program. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

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