How police accountability works in Pennsylvania

Riot police, surrounded by Black Lives Matter protesters, stand outside the Pennsylvania Capitol building in May 30, 2020. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

This story was updated on Monday, June 15 to correct Rep. Summer Lee’s party affiliation.

If you dial 911 from downtown Harrisburg, as many as three police forces might come to your aid.

It could be an officer of the Harrisburg Police Department that responds to your call. But depending on your location, you might be met by a deputy from the Capitol Police force, which guards the Capitol Complex, or the Amtrak Police, a quasi-federal agency that patrols trains stations and tracks nationwide.

Each officer answers to a different authority with unique policies that govern when they can use force and how they’ll answer for bad behavior.

Law enforcement in Pennsylvania is highly decentralized, a patchwork of more than 1,100 agencies at the local, county and state levels. Federal data show that the state is home to more local police departments than any other state in the country, as well as dozens of law enforcement agencies that patrol housing authorities, hospitals, transit stations and universities. 

Pennsylvania has a single state board that sets standards for training and officer certification. Beyond that, it’s largely up to individual departments to investigate questionable cops and mete out discipline.

As Pennsylvanians join nationwide calls for greater police oversight and accountability, state lawmakers are set to take up a series of limited reform measures in committee votes and public hearings this week. 

Here’s what you need to know.

How widespread is police misconduct in Pennsylvania, anyway?

It’s nearly impossible to answer this question because the state does not collect data on use-of-force incidents or officer misconduct.

National statistics are incomplete, too.

The FBI began collecting use-of-force data in 2012, but does not require police departments to disclose incidents. The limited data the FBI has collected show that Black people accounted for 31 percent of police killing victims nationally in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the U.S. population, Vox reported in 2018.

Some Pennsylvania police departments publish statistics showing how often their officers use force or violate internal policies. Reporters and members of the public can use the state’s Right to Know law to see officer misconduct files, but can expect to fight a lengthy legal battle. 

As PennLive reported on Friday, Pennsylvania is one of 23 states that allow the disciplinary records of public employees, including police and teachers, to be shielded from public view.

“We have a bad public access law about public employees’ discipline,” Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel at Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, told PennLive. “We get virtually nothing.”

Who decides when police can use force?

Pennsylvania state law devotes fewer than 300 words to the standards governing use of force by police officers.

It says an officer can use “any force which he believes to be necessary” to defend himself and others from bodily harm while making an arrest, and can use “deadly force” when a person facing arrest is attempting to escape, has a deadly weapon, or might seriously injure or kill others.

State law does not define what constitutes a use of force. Federal definitions include hand-to-hand tactics, such as chokeholds and beatings, as well as the use of firearms and tear gas. 

Given the broad latitude, individual police agencies in Pennsylvania can write their own standards for when their officers can use force against civilians. 

Those policies are generally considered public records. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy to access. 

PennLive obtained Harrisburg’s use-of-force policy through a public records request – a process that took nearly a month. A spokesman for the Capitol Police declined to share his department’s policy with the Capital-Star, saying in an emailed statement that they “are not considered public documents.”

A bill authored by Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pittsburgh, would tighten state law to give officers less discretion in using deadly force. Other lawmakers have proposed that Pennsylvania require use-of-force and de-escalation courses in officers’ annual recertification training.

Who investigates misconduct?

In short, it depends on the agency.

Gov. Tom Wolf announced this month that he would appoint an independent watchdog and a civilian commission to investigate misconduct and use of force by officers under his jurisdiction, including the State Police troopers and Attorney General agents.

As for the hundreds of local, regional and private forces across Pennsylvania, it’s “really kind of left up to the [individual] department” to decide how to probe complaints against their officers, a veteran officer told PublicSource, a Pittsburgh-based news outlet, in 2018.

In Pittsburgh, a city officer who hurts or kills a civilian is immediately interviewed by Allegheny County police. As PublicSource reported this week, that arrangement is facing challenges from Pittsburgh’s police union.

What’s more typical is a process like the one in Philadelphia, where officers on an Internal Affairs division investigate complaints against their colleagues. 

Under Pennsylvania’s open records law, the findings of these investigations — as well as the complaints that spark them — do not need to be made public.

What happens after an investigation?

Again, that’s largely up to individual police departments.

If an investigation reveals misconduct, police officials can decide to terminate, demote or otherwise discipline an officer.

But it’s hard to how often that happens, and discipline doesn’t always prevent questionable cops from going back to the street. 

Terminations and other punishments can be overturned in the union arbitration process, as was the case for more than 100 officers who were disciplined by the Philadelphia Police Department between 2011 and 2019, the Philadelphia Inquirer found.

Officers who are disciplined for bad behavior can also look for jobs with new departments. 

That’s what allegedly happened with Michael Rosfeld, the former East Pittsburgh police officer who shot and killed the teenager Antwon Rose during a traffic stop. Rosfeld, who was acquitted of Rose’s murder last year, left his position at the University of Pittsburgh police force to avoid being fired, according to the AP.

Lawmakers such as Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, say Pennsylvania needs more transparency to weed out bad police officers. Police unions are backing a version of his bill that creates a private database of police misconduct files that law enforcement agencies could search before making new hires.

Pennsylvania does have one state board that can discipline police officers. But the Municipal Police Officers Education and Training Commission, which meets quarterly, does not investigate complaints against officers. 

The board can yank certifications from officers who are convicted of crimes, or who do not maintain active employment in law enforcement. As PublicSource reported, decertifications in Pennsylvania are relatively rare