Gov. Tom Wolf marches at a Black Lives Matter protest in Harrisburg on June 3, 2020. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)
After a week of protests across Pennsylvania, from big cities to small boroughs, state elected officials offered their first taste of action Thursday to expand accountability and training standards for law enforcement.
At a press conference, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that he would set up a citizens’ review board for all law enforcement personnel under his jurisdiction — such as the State Police.
In a near simultaneous announcement, Wolf’s fellow Democrat, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, announced he had reached an agreement with police chiefs and unions to support legislation that will create a confidential statewide database of police records for hiring purposes.
The combined moves left much to be desired for activists and experts. But most acknowledged that it was a step in the direction of justice and the reality of divided government.
“At least he’s taking the things he can do, I give him credit for that,” David Harris, a law professor and policing expert at the University of Pittsburgh, told the Capital-Star.
Wolf, who spent two hours Wednesday marching and rallying with Black Lives Matter protesters, also said the state would redo its use of force training standards and create an inspector general to investigate fraud and misconduct among law enforcement.
“I need to provide a reason for people to want to deescalate. I need to show I am listening,” Wolf said.
All of Harrisburg, Wolf added, needs to take steps to show that protesters are being heard. He backed a raft of policing reform bills from Democratic legislators — including a ban on chokeholds, expanding public access to police footage and adjusting use of force guidelines.
Much of the legislation has lingered in committee in the Republican-controlled General Assembly for the past year, if not longer. Democratic legislators first began a policing reform push following the police shooting of Antwon Rose Jr. in East Pittsburgh.
“We can’t move on from the injustices of the past that continue today without healing those wounds and creating a more equitable future,” a coalition of police reformers, including House Minority Whip Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, and progressive Rep. Summer Lee, D-Allegheny, said in a joint statement. “We look forward to continuing to work with all levels of government to ensure these reforms come to fruition.”
Police reforms have become hot talk, particularly among the left, in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in police custody last week. All four police officers involved in the death are now facing criminal charges, and the U.S. Justice Department has launched its own probe.
Floyd’s death, under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, has sparked hundreds of protests nationwide, including at least one in every state according to USA Today.
That includes in Pennsylvania, where demonstrators took to the streets everywhere from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to Milton and Sharon. In all, the Capital-Star has located 48 protests.
Some went by without incident. But in others, police used tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters, or were videotaped kicking downed protesters.
Local authorities have claimed, in some cases without evidence, that demonstrators instigated violence. Reporters on the scene have disagreed.
The fight has exposed deep tensions between local Democratic officials and protesters, some of which bubbled up Thursday.
In a statement responding to Wolf’s moves, Pennsylvania Stands Up, a progressive activism group, said that Wolf’s actions were “grossly insufficient.”
“We need to take military equipment out of the hands of the police, not train them better,” the group said. “We need real community control over police funding and policies, not advisory boards.”
A retort and a compromise
If the reforms were not enough for some protesters, they received a harsh greeting from the law enforcement officers who’ll be impacted.
In a statement Thursday, Pennsylvania State Troopers Association president David Kennedy termed Wolf’s actions an “attack.”
“What [Wolf] is saying today is the Pennsylvania State Police, and all law enforcement in our commonwealth, are no better than those charged with Mr. Floyd’s death,” Kennedy said.
State troopers, answering directly to the governor, would be immediately impacted by any new administration policies.
In their own statement, Les Neri, president of the state Fraternal Order of Police, said that Floyd’s death “has diminished the trust and respect” for law enforcement in some places. He added that the union, representing 40,000 active and retired police officers, is “firmly committed to working with stakeholders to create an environment of healing, understanding and trust.”
A willingness to work together came out in Shapiro’s announcement that he had secured the support of police chiefs and union leaders to support legislation to allow departments to reviewing a new hire’s personnel records.
“Officers who engage in misconduct ,or use excessive force, erode trust in law enforcement and make it harder for our communities to be and feel safe,” a joint statement issued by the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia police chiefs, the president of the Pennsylvania State Lodge Fraternal Order of Police, and the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, reads.
“When they leave an agency, or retire in lieu of termination, that record needs to go with them.”
Under current law, reviewing such files is nearly impossible, Pitt’s Harris said. He applauded the potential deal as a step forward. But he said a national database would work even better to prevent unlicensed cops from crossing state lines to find a new job.
Legislation to implement the database has been introduced in both the House and Senate by Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, and Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia.
Under the proposed legislation, law enforcement agencies would be required to search the database and review the records of an officer before extending any job offers.
The proposal would still keep those documents hidden.
“I don’t understand why these things are not public records,” Harris said.
Such disagreements over details is expected, according to former Capitol insider Patrick Cawley.
Cawley spent nearly seven years in the General Assembly, including four years as executive director of a Senate committee charged with criminal justice reforms. Before that, he worked in the office of the Attorney General for 13 years.
As a Republican staffer, Cawley helped shepherd a first-in-the-nation law to passage that automatically seals non-violent offenders’ records. He also was part of passing a law rewriting the rules for police footage.
In the past, police reform has often consisted of mandatory training, Cawley said, but that’s the easy solution and “not that effective.”
Accountability would have to come from more substantial efforts, such as changes to immunity for government actors. Such a change to qualified immunity would likely be on the federal level, Cawley said. Likely Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden backed such a push earlier this week.
But with Floyd’s death and Shapiro’s announcement, Cawley said that the “moment will not pass without some kind of legislation” in Harrisburg.
“The more interesting question,” he added, “is how big of a bite they take out of the apple, and if anyone is satisfied with what reaches the governor’s desk.”
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