Pa. House panel approves police reform bills, with full vote as soon as next week

Rep. Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, talks with House Judiciary Chair Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, after a committee vote on policing bills, June 15, 2020. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

(*This story was updated at 12:41 p.m., on 6/15/20 with additional comment from House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler and Attorney General Josh Shapiro.)

After weeks of protests for justice and action both inside and outside the Pennsylvania Capitol, a state House panel has advanced five proposals to update police hiring and training.

The reforms, crammed into two bills passed by the House Judiciary Committee Monday morning, would update use-of-force and racial awareness training for law enforcement, and require regular PTSD checks for officers.

But most importantly, one bill would create a confidential statewide database of police personnel files, including any criminal charges, civil and ethics complaints from the public, or internal complaints of harassment, discrimination, sexual misconduct or domestic violence among other issues.

Law enforcement agencies would be required to consult the database while hiring new officers. While specific complaints could not be acquired by an open records request, reporters and the public could check if departments had hired someone with a record of misconduct.

All the proposals — four from Democrats, one from a Republican — passed unanimously through the GOP-controlled committee with little comment from lawmakers. 

The committee’s Republican chairman, Rep. Rob Kauffman, of Franklin County, said the proposals were picked because they could “garner significant support.” They could come up for a floor vote as soon as next week.

How police accountability works in Pennsylvania

Democrats on the committee celebrated the moment, but they also warned that their work was far from over.

The 100-plus Black Lives Matter protests that have occurred across Pennsylvania, Rep. Summer Lee, D-Allegheny, noted, are not just because of the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed in police custody in Minnesota in late May.

“These are folks who have been [protesting] not since George Floyd, not since Antown Rose, not even since Mike Brown or Eric Garner, but long, long before that,” Lee said, referencing police killings going back to 2014. 

Their nationally known names as victims of law enforcement violence, alongside Harrisburg’s own Ty’Rique Riley, were chalked onto the Capitol steps on Monday morning.

“People on the ground have made clear what their expectations are of their government, and we have responsibility to act on that,” Lee added.

In the future, she and her colleagues hoped for the committee to revisit other policing proposals, such as her own bill to rewrite the state’s use-of-force law. She also wanted to see proposals on Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk before the General Assembly breaks for summer at the end of the month.

Monday’s vote comes a week after Black Democrats shut down the Pennsylvania House floor for about 90 minutes and demanded action on 19 pieces of legislation, from Lee’s use-of-force proposal to special prosecutors for police killings to oversight for departments acquiring military surplus equipment.

Some of the bills have lingered in the House for a year, introduced as a package on the anniversary of the death of Rose, a Black East Pittsburgh teenager shot and killed by police in 2018.

At the time, committee chair Kauffman told the Capital-Star he would not run Lee’s use-of-force bill and expressed skepticism of policing reforms in general.

But last week’s protest led to meetings between Republican and Democratic leadership, which trickled down to Kauffman.

On Monday, Kauffman said that no Democrats had ever consulted him on their policing bills before. Kauffman also cited the sheer quantity of bills in his committee for the delay in action.

“We don’t study every piece of legislation that comes” to the committee, Kauffman said.

He did not commit to any more votes in the future.

Soon after the final vote, some Democrats approached Kauffman and thanked him for holding the meeting — and offered their services to flag and review their bills.

Rep. Chris Rabb, a Philadelphia Democrat and committee member, sponsored the policing personnel database. Speaking after the meeting, he acknowledged the committee’s heavy workload, but didn’t see it as an excuse for the last year of inaction.

“It’s true there may be 90-plus bills that have come before this committee,” Rabb said. “But they have newspapers in Franklin County.”

“There is police brutality everywhere. They are protests not just in Pittsburgh, not just in Philadelphia, but all over this commonwealth,” he added. “It is not our job to keep folks up with the news.”

Wolf has already indicated his support for the House Democrats reform package.

The police personnel database also has the backing of the state police union, the state troopers union, and the police chiefs association in a deal brokered by Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

In an email, Jacklin Rhoads, spokesperson for Shapiro, said that the attorney general had begun talks with police leaders in October 2019. While the talks created consensus on hiring, other reforms were discussed. Rhoads did not say what else was included in talks.

The bills passage received praise from both Shapiro, who called it “a down payment on the kinds of reforms we need to deliver” in a statement. House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, must now shepherd the proposal through the House.

“Today’s unanimous vote speaks volumes to the importance of these issues,” Cutler said in a statement. “Ultimately the issue is about trust, and taking steps to ensure all residents and all law enforcement are taking strides to build trust makes for a safer Pennsylvania, and everyone benefits.”

The Pennsylvania Senate has announced plans for hearings on policing reform, but they are not yet scheduled.