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Loopholes hinder Pa.'s police misconduct database

Plus, why Pa. police agencies are so hard to count.

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

June 23, 2022 | spotlightpa.org
Police reports, sanction-proof, grant ban, pressure campaign, abortion travel, tax strategy, total rewrite, and an incomplete law enforcement head count.
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Following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer with a history of misconduct, lawmakers in Harrisburg created a database that was meant to make it easier for Pennsylvania police departments to track past misconduct claims against potential new hires.

Two years later, Danielle Ohl found the database — lauded as a national model — is riddled with loopholes that raise serious questions about its ability to flag officers with histories of misconduct.

David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said the lack of transparency and the unclear language in the law leave "a giant hole through which a lot of misconduct can escape."

Also this week, a deal to close a loophole in state House rules that works to protect lawmakers accused of sexual misconduct from facing institutional sanction is being quietly negotiated, leaders in the chamber confirm.

The resolution being eyed would expand miconduct rules adopted several years ago that bar representatives from engaging in "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature" against state House employees, per Stephen Caruso.

The changes would broaden the scope of the rules and allow the House Ethics Committee to intervene in a wider array of scenarios.

And finally, top Pennsylvania lawmakers have a tentative deal to get private money out of election administration and offset the impacts by upping state funding for county election offices, sources tell Caruso. 

The compromise, agreed to in principle on Wednesday, would end contested third-party election grants like the ones from Facebook's CEO that became a partisan flashpoint after Trump's 2020 loss.

"We've all been working together for some time. And we just thought we've reached a moment where we're hoping to get something done."

—State Sen. Sharif Street (D., Philadelphia) on a tentative deal to ban private money and increase state funding for county election offices
How many law enforcement agencies are in Pennsylvania? No one seems to know.

Our weeklong trip down a reporting rabbit hole began with a simple question: How many law enforcement agencies are in Pennsylvania? 

We assumed answering this would be a straightforward task.

We were wrong.

Our reporting started when Spotlight PA’s Danielle Ohl set out to examine what happened in the two years since the legislature passed Act 57, a law that created a database to track police misconduct and guide hiring for law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania. Every law enforcement agency in the state is required to report to the database, although Ohl’s reporting found that the law includes several loopholes, including a lack of enforcement mechanisms.

We learned that more than 1,100 agencies were enrolled to use the database, but a key question remained: Out of how many? Did the 1,100 agencies represent nearly every agency in the state, or a fraction of them?

In lieu of an answer, we found conflicting state and federal data, ambiguity over which law enforcement agencies are counted in federal reports, and potential resource disparities between agencies, all of which contribute to the confusion. 

The lack of a clear answer from officials was frustrating to us as journalists, but should also raise concerns for residents. If the state doesn’t know how many agencies employ people with the power to make an arrest or carry a gun, for example, how can it hold them all accountable? When agencies are overlooked by state and federal reporting, residents lose access to vital information about their communities.

We checked data and reports from national and state sources and found a wide range of estimates. While the numbers could ebb and flow over time as community needs changed, the numbers we found weren’t off by a little; the counts differed by hundreds. 

At the state level, a 2021 press release from Gov. Tom Wolf’s office celebrating the launch of the  Act 57 database references more than 1,300 law enforcement agencies. The 2018 Crime in Pennsylvania Annual Uniform Crime Report, however, says it received data for 1,913 “jurisdictions.” 

We next looked at federal reports, checking the databases created as part of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, a voluntary program that gathers data from more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country and assigns each reporting agency a unique code.
One of these databases, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, lists more than 1,700 unique Pennsylvania codes in its 2020 data.

But this number still included some caveats. It’s unclear if each code represents a unique law enforcement agency, or whether smaller units within a larger department have their own number. (We ran across this problem with other data sources, too.)

Spotlight has filed a public records request with the FBI for the most recent code directory and is awaiting a response.

Over eight days, we asked 10 people — including state and federal officials, academics, and lawmakers — this same question: How many law enforcement agencies are in Pennsylvania? 

None of them knew. — Emma Dooling and Danielle Ohl, Spotlight PA
HIGH PRESSURE: Then-President Donald Trump's pressure campaign around the 2020 election included daily attempts by his legal team to enlist Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) in the administration's push to overturn Pennsylvania's results, WITF reports. Cutler told congressional J6 investigators this week that he thought the outreach was inappropriate and asked that it stop. It didn't.

RULING PREP: Expecting the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade, as its conservative majority appears poised to do, The Inquirer reports Pennsylvania abortion providers are preparing for a surge of up to 8,500 more patients from neighboring states where access could quickly be rolled back. Abortion will remain legal in Pennsylvania without Roe, but long-term access here could hinge on this year's governor's race.

TAX TRICKS: The richest man in Pennsylvania is a political megadonor who avoided paying more than $1 billion in taxes in just six years, ProPublica reports. Jeff Yass — who uses his fortune to back political candidates who also support tax cuts and privatizing public schools — has honed an exceptionally potent tax avoidance strategy that one expert called "very suspicious and suggestive of potential abuse..."

MISSED FIXES: For a quarter of a century, inspectors urged repairs on Pittsburgh's Fern Hollow Bridge, but the city failed to carry out most of the work, the Post-Gazette found. In January, the bridge collapsed, injuring nine people and renewing scrutiny of Pennsylvania's beleaguered infrastructure. The PG says the failure to make repairs jeopardized the safety of thousands of motorists who crossed the bridge each day.

GUN SWAP: State House Republicans on Tuesday blocked a Democrat-led proposal that would have prevented anyone under 21 from possessing assault-style rifles here, changing the bill into a constitutional amendment that would loosen concealed carry laws instead, per the AP. In Washington, D.C., a bipartisan firearms bill that aims to expand backgrounds checks and close the "boyfriend loophole" could pass by week's end.


» ARMCHAIR LEHIGH VALLEY: Disputed ballots sway judicial race

» AXIOS: What to know about Pa.'s COVID-19 'shots for tots'

» CAPITAL-STAR: Pa. panel moves to lower kratom age limit

» MARSHALL PROJECT: Pa. feeds glaring FBI crime data gaps 

» 6ABC: Murder charge vacated 90 years after teen's execution

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FAMILY TIES (Case No. 152): What is the closest relation that your mother's brother's brother-in-law could be to you? 
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: A checkbook. (Find last week's clue here)
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