Here’s everything we know about police reform in Harrisburg and what may happen next

By: - June 9, 2020 4:23 pm

Black Lives Matter protesters march through the Capitol complex in Harrisburg, PA on June 1, 2020 (Capital-Star photo).

A protest by Democrats that brought the state House to a standstill over a long-stalled package of police reform bills bore fruit Tuesday.

After 24 hours of off-and-on discussions, Democrats reached a deal to advance reforms in police hiring, training and wellness practices in the Republican-controlled state House next week.

The deal, according to two Democratic sources, includes measures sponsored by  Democratic Reps. Chris Rabb, of Philadelphia, and Rep. Harry Readshaw, of Allegheny County. Combined, they will allow police departments to review the personnel files, including complaints and reprimands, of job applicants. Currently, such files are not accessible, according to experts.

The proposed database would be confidential. Such a proposal received the backing of police unions and chiefs last week in an agreement struck by Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat.

The deal comes after lawmakers, many in the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, seized the Speaker’s rostrum on Monday afternoon, and refused to allow the chamber to convene until they were guaranteed votes.

In fiery speeches, Democrats denounced systemic racism, and asked for their colleagues to take a knee for eight and a half minutes in honor of George Floyd. Most of the chamber, Democrats and Republicans alike, joined in solidarity.

Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed in police custody two weeks ago under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

Floyd’s death led to protests across the country, and at least 103 in Pennsylvania itself — from Philadelphia to Punxsutawney and everywhere in between.

It’s not just big cities. Towns and boroughs across Pa. are protesting police brutality

What the Democrats’ protest has gained so far is hard to say. The deal includes just four proposals of a preliminary list of 19 bills. The list is far from exhaustive.

Not yet scheduled for a vote, and a top Democratic priority, is tightening Pennsylvania’s use of force rules for law enforcement. 

Introduced by Rep. Summer Lee, D-Allegheny, it has lingered in committee for at least a year. It was introduced as part of a larger policing package, inspired by the police shooting of Antwon Rose Jr. in East Pittsburgh.

The state Fraternal Order of Police has questioned the constitutionality of Lee’s bill, And House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rob Kuaffman, R-Franklin, has refused to hold a vote on the bill. 

“I actually believe our law enforcement in Pennsylvania do a good job in policing,” he said last year.

Speaking to the Capital-Star Tuesday, Kauffman said he is currently talking with stakeholders, such as the state police union, on the Democratic legislation.

“They’ve never been talked about,” Kauffman said. “Nobody has ever actually looked at them.”

Other proposals, according to a list provided by Democratic spokesperson Bill Patton, include:

  • Giving the state Attorney General’s office the authority to “oversee, investigate and prosecute” all alleged murders by police officers. Two similar bills in the House and Senate would accomplish this, respectively sponsored by Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia, and Sen. Art Haywood, D-Philadelphia.
  • Making it illegal for police officers to have sex with anyone in custody.There are proposals in both the Senate and House to accomplish this, respectively sponsored by Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery, and Rabb.
  • Reforming state certification of police officers, including creating a new independent board with the power to investigate complaints. The measure is sponsored by Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Allegheny.
  • Requiring regular PTSD evaluations for police officers, including after lethal use of force. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Jason Dawkins, D-Philadelphia. This proposal is included in the deal, according to a Democratic source.
  • Making all police footage, outside of body cameras, subject to state open records law, while expanding the amount of time to acquire body cam footage. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Dan Miller, D-Allegheny
  • Creating uniform police use of force reporting, including a statewide database maintained by the State Police, also sponsored by Miller.
  • Codifying the right of citizens to record police in public, again sponsored by Miller.
  • Requiring local approval from a governing body for local police departments to acquire federal surplus military equipment, proposed by Miller.
  • Mandatory drug testing for police officers. If they test positive for a controlled substance, they will be fired. The legislation is sponsored by Rep. Tony DeLuca, D-Allegheny

Another four pieces of legislation would set up new state guidelines for interrogations, use of force, hate crime detection and child abuse detection. The latter, sponsored by Rep. Dan Williams, D-Chester, will be up for a vote next week, according to a committee announcement on the House floor Tuesday.

Combined, the proposals cover much of what Democratic lawmakers discussed at a press conference last week on policing. Among the most prominent missing pieces is a proposal for a statewide ban on chokeholds or legislation regulating police union collective bargaining agreements.

“I expect by now there may be additional measures in the mix, so we’re not hung up on the exact number,” Patton said in an email. “But rather on seeing that the majority will at long last finally join us in working to get things done.”

Meanwhile, rank-and-file Republicans have said they have yet to see specific legislation to comment on.

“I don’t know what the objective was,” Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Franklin, told the Capital-Star. “I wish they had actually put out the bills and said ‘let’s talk about these bills.’”

Regardless, Schemel said the proposals “warranted serious consideration.”

The status of a special session on policing is still unclear. Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, sent a letter in support of a standalone debate over policing in the General Assembly Monday night, Senate Republican leadership downplayed the idea.

Multiple lawmakers also pointed out to the Capital-Star that any laws that could be passed in a special session could also be passed as per usual.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.