The officer who fatally shot a black teen in East Pittsburgh was acquitted. But that’s not the end of the story in Harrisburg

By: - March 26, 2019 6:30 am

(Capital-Star photo).

On Friday, the former police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black teenager in East Pittsburgh was acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges.

Supporters of Antwon Rose II, who was 17 at the time of his death in June 2018, took to the streets of neighboring Pittsburgh to protest the decision. State representatives, including Summer Lee and Ed Gainey, were with them.

Lee, a freshman Democrat from Allegheny County, told reporters she wasn’t surprised by the verdict.

“We know that the justice system doesn’t always reflect reality,” she said.

While the criminal trial against ex-officer Michael Rosfeld is over, the debate over policing in Harrisburg is just beginning.

In September 2018, a group of Democrats from Allegheny County unveiled a package of bills designed at improving policing across the state. The proposals included efforts to increase diversity among recruits, bolster oversight, and improve police pay.

The legislation didn’t go anywhere before the end of the session. But with Friday’s verdict, lawmakers are planning a fresh push.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, has introduced legislation that would require municipal police departments to adopt a use-of-force policy and keep records of each incident where force is used. East Pittsburgh’s police department did not have such a policy when Rosfeld shot Rose, according to Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr.

Costa has also proposed the creation of a database that includes “any disciplinary actions, misconduct, or discriminatory policing complaints lodged against law enforcement personnel,” according to a proposal summary.

Rosfeld was hired by the small East Pittsburgh Police Department after leaving the University of Pittsburgh’s force. There, he was accused of accosting and arresting two men without cause. The university said in a legal filing that East Pittsburgh never requested Rosfeld’s employee file.

Both of Costa’s bills were referred to the Senate Law and Justice Committee, chaired by Sen. Patrick Stefano, R-Fayette. A spokesperson for Stefano said “there are no plans to review this legislation at this time.”

Rep. Austin Davis, D-Allegheny, also plans to reintroduce his Rose-inspired policing legislation.

As he did last session, Davis wants the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to study “the salaries of law enforcement officers across this Commonwealth, including any disparities between departments, and highlight the salary differences between part-time and full-time officers of police departments,” according to the bill’s language.

There are hundreds of small municipal police departments across Pennsylvania that depend on part-time officers with low salaries. All municipal officers are required to undergo training at facilities overseen by the State Police-run Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission. But lawmakers and experts have expressed concern that ongoing education is lacking.

Consolidating small municipal police departments into regional forces is one solution to the issue, albeit one that comes with its own challenges. Davis wants the state to create a grant program that would relieve some of the initial financial burden of regionalization.

“The things we laid out last year would go a long way in creating a better law enforcement society for everyone,” Davis said Monday.

Davis said lawmakers who support the policing bills plan to meet this week about “reenergizing that package and really pushing the Republicans, particularly the Judiciary chairman to bring them up for a vote.

“We introduced them last session. They didn’t go anywhere,” he added. “But we’re not going to end the fight. We’ve seen all these young people who are in Pittsburgh right now who are in the streets. And I think it’s our responsibility as lawmakers to make sure that we’re channeling their voice right here in Harrisburg.”

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Sarah Anne Hughes
Sarah Anne Hughes

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.