Protests erupted around the country in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota while in police custody. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
The two chambers of the Pennsylvania General Assembly traded policing reform bills Wednesday that, if signed into law, would create a statewide police personnel file database and ban officers from using chokeholds.
The votes on Wednesday afternoon came two weeks after Black Democrats shut down the House of Representatives for 90 minutes, demanding action on their stalled legislation. Republican leadership scheduled votes soon after.
While the Senate featured no banners or speeches, the upper chamber’s GOP leaders still scheduled hearings and votes.
The renewed focus on policing comes after the death of George Floyd, a Black man in Minnesota who died in police custody. His death sparked protests across the country and the commonwealth.
The protest wasn’t the first time lawmakers asked for action on policing. The police shooting of Antown Rose in East Pittsburgh in 2018 also drew Pennsylvanians attention to racial disparities in policing. Calls for action at the time went unanswered.
But the vivid death of Floyd, captured on cell phone video, helped prod the Republican majority — then led by former GOP Speaker Mike Turzai — into action.
As of Wednesday, the House and Senate have passed four bills, all with unanimous support.
The two Senate bills include:
- Requiring each police department to keep records of every use-of-force incident. The State Police will then release a yearly report with the information
- Mandating each police department adopt a use-of-force policy, train officers in it, and release the policy to the public
- Banning officers from using chokeholds
The two House bills include:
- Mandatory PTSD checks for officers
- An updated training for use-of-force, implicit bias, and child abuse detection
- A confidential statewide database of police personnel records
The Senate proposals now move to the House, and the House proposals move to the Senate. None have yet received final approval to head to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk.
All together, proposals are only a small sample out of the, at minimum, 19 policing proposals introduced by Democrats.
But the passage of the measures still drew praise from Democratic lawmakers, who have long called for action.
Philadelphia Democrat Sen. Sharif Street, sponsor of the chokehold ban, said in a statement that the bill’s passage “ensure[s] our communities’ expressions of frustration, pain and protest do not ring hollow.”
And even as they demanded that the chamber not consider its work on policing done, many lawmakers who had earlier protested, thanked their Republican colleagues for working together.
“What we’ve seen in recent weeks is not new. It’s not the first time people have been crying out for justice. It’s not the first time our nation has forfeited certain parts of the community,” Rep. Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, said during remarks on the House floor.
“So I look forward to this being the first of many steps,” she added.
Among the policies advanced, the database is of particular interest, according to lawmakers and policing experts.
Previously, police departments hiring a new officer might not review job applicants’ disciplinary records, whether for a complaint from a fellow officer or a member of the public.
Under the bill passed by the House, departments must use the database to background check new hires.
Media and citizens could not access specific complaints, but could see if a departments had hired an officer whose record included criminal charges, civil and ethics complaints from the public, or internal complaints of harassment, discrimination, sexual misconduct or domestic violence among other issues.
The proposal’s supporters argued it could cut down on bad hires, saving local governments money. Others, such as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, argued it could rebuild trust by keeping “rogue” officers out of communities.
Police have “one of the most difficult jobs in our society, and their jobs are made very difficult by those in their ranks who are not qualified or have ill intent,” Kauffman said on the House floor.
“This is an effort to make sure communities across Pennsylvania are able to have the full disclosure and knowledge that they are hiring the absolute best for their communities,” he added.
A recently published study in the Yale Law Journal last month found a small but constant minority of officers who commit misconduct before moving on to a new job.
These officers with a history of abuse tend to be hired in low income communities with few resources, the study showed.
While it highlighted a database as a solution, the study also concluded that stronger state-level discipline of police was necessary for an effective database.
“Even if the database includes every decertification decision nationwide, it is useful only if states regularly decertify problem officers,” the study states.
Pennsylvania only decertifies officers when they have been found guilty of criminal charges. The state board charged with removing officers from service rarely uses its power, as reported by PublicSource.
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