Criminal Justice

5 takeaways from our event on Pennsylvania’s flawed police hiring database

by Danielle Ohl of Spotlight PA |

Panelists participating in a Spotlight PA event said the 2020 law that created a statewide police misconduct database needs legislative action to close loopholes that render it toothless.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Philadelphia Inquirer

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Missed Spotlight PA’s event about the limitations of Pennsylvania’s police hiring database? Here are five of the most interesting takeaways from the conversation with state Rep. Chris Rabb (D., Philadelphia), Penn State Dickinson Law professor Raff Donelson, and Northern Lancaster County Regional Police Chief David Steffen.

You can also watch a recording of the entire event here.

Police accountability is not controversial

The Pennsylvania General Assembly in 2020 passed Act 57 in 30 days, a lightning-fast demonstration of bipartisanship that surprised panelists given the legislature’s slow, polarized reputation.

But since 2020, police accountability measures have stagnated despite broad support for accountability measures, Rabb said.

“I’m in the largest full-time state legislature in the country, in a body that has not sought to move forward on any substantive police accountability,” Rabb said.

All three panelists agreed more accountability would make policing safer for both communities and officers themselves.

Steffen, who is also president of Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, said there was “no opposition within our ranks” to the law that created the database and that “legislation was somewhat overdue” in tracking and managing problematic officers.

“It’s a good start,” Steffen said of the law. “Like most legislation, things have to be tested and sorted out by the due process elements of it.”

More police departments are getting accredited, but the state could benefit from having fewer law enforcement agencies

Police agencies voluntarily apply to the PCPA for accreditation, a process that ensures agencies are following best practices.

Because Pennsylvania doesn’t have a standardized process for hiring and checking the backgrounds of police officers, accreditation is an “accountability piece that I don’t think should be overlooked,” Steffen said.

“You need to have that independent, third-party look to assure that you’re adhering to those things that you say you’re doing and making certain that that happens,” he said.

There are 142 accredited police agencies in Pennsylvania, a small slice of the more than 1,300 in the state, but the number is growing. This year, the association is poised to accredit 29 agencies, a record number that Steffen attributes to the passage of accountability measures such as Act 57.

“That’s remarkable,” he said. “Typically, we’re looking at probably between six and 10. So this is a good thing.”

The morning of the panel, Pennsylvanians woke up to the news that a police agency in Tioga Borough, a small town in the northern part of the state, had hired Timothy Loehmann, the officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice as he played with a toy gun in a Cleveland park.

Spotlight PA has previously reported that it’s difficult to determine the exact number of police agencies in Pennsylvania. Small agencies such as the one in Tioga are hard to track because they often lack the resources to report their statistics to federal agencies, and thus can go undetected if they flout oversight rules.

“One of the big questions would be, if it’s a community of 600 people, why do they have their own police department?” Steffen said. “I think one of the things that we’re going to be moving towards in Pennsylvania is larger agencies through regionalization and consolidation of agencies.”

Legislation might be imperfect, but it’s needed for systemic change

Act 57 has loopholes you “can drive a truck through,” Rabb said, adding that legislative fixes to systemic problems like police misconduct may still be the best option.

As federal courts grow more conservative, there’s less likelihood they’ll try to change policing policies from the bench, Donelson said, and if police departments could effectively change from within, they would have done so already, he added.

“I think legislative fixes, though there are some major limitations, are probably our best hope for reforming police,” he said.

Moving forward, legislation should provide incentives for compliance as well as enforcement provisions, Donelson said. Previous reporting by Spotlight PA found that Act 57 does not include any mechanisms to ensure compliance.

“Every chief wants to know that they’re not hiring people who are causing problems, or hurting people unnecessarily, or are causing bad press,” he said. “But at the same time, chiefs don’t want administrative burdens of contributing to that database. They don’t want to air their own dirty laundry. And so, as it stands, each chief kinda has to balance this desire for complying with the law versus the various reasons for not wanting to comply with the law. And the legislation, by not having an enforcement mechanism, makes it a little too easy for certain chiefs to decide that the balance of incentives weighs against participating.”

Another option would be to take action on the local level with ordinances that address hiring practices in individual communities and on college campuses.

Now that the problems with the law are known, “people need to share this information and go back on a hyperlocal level and say, ‘We can close this loophole,’” Rabb said. “We don’t need to wait for Joe Biden or for Governor Wolf or the knuckleheads in Harrisburg. We can do this ourselves, township by township, city to city.”

Policing in Pennsylvania suffers from lack of standardization

Due to a lack of standardization, each department might have a different process for finding, vetting, and approving officers, despite statewide training requirements, Steffen said.

Act 57 requires every agency to conduct a background check, and the state body that certifies officers published temporary rules in 2021 to guide those checks. But further legislation standardizing the process would help agencies avoid hires with histories of misconduct, Steffen said, something the police chiefs association tries to do when adopting standards agencies must meet for accreditation.

“We looked at how [background checks] were being done in other places because sometimes you don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Steffen said, adding that states like Michigan adopted guidance on hiring and licensing officers.

“It’s not a perfect system,” Steffen said, “but our job is to leave it better than we found it, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Pennsylvania could follow examples set by other states

In the wake of protests against police brutality in 2020, other states also passed legislation aimed at improving police accountability, some of them more effective than the measures passed in Pennsylvania, the panelists said.

“Some states automatically decertify someone for certain kinds of wrongs done in the line of duty, like making materially false statements,” Donelson said. “Some states make this certification available through their public records law so it can be found and reported on by reporters.”

Unlike Act 57, which allows a department to avoid reporting misconduct to the database if an officer resigns before they receive “final and binding” discipline, Illinois law requires police departments to notify a state oversight board when an officer under investigation leaves their job.

“So there are various other things that states have done that Pennsylvania could emulate,” Donelson said.

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