Wolf signs policing hiring and training reforms; more action awaits

Gov. Tom Wolf signed two bills increasing police training and reforming police hiring Tuesday. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Gov. Tom Wolf has signed two policing bills to reform officer hiring and training that were  passed in the wake of statewide protests against police brutality.

Some of the bills signed into law Tuesday had languished in Republican-controlled legislative committees for a year or more. They were only advanced after some Black Democrats took over the House floor in June. 

Making fiery speeches and holding a Black Lives Matter banner, lawmakers demanded action by the Republican majority amid nationwide demonstrations over the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, both of whom are Black.

Thirty-six days later, and without a single dissenting vote in the House or Senate, Wolf signed the fruits of their protest into law. They authorize: 

  • A confidential statewide database of police personnel records, so police agencies can background check prospective hires
  • Mandatory PTSD checks for officers
  • Updated police training for use-of-force, implicit bias, and child abuse detection

Wolf also has legislation on his desk to increase protections against sexual assault for people in police custody. A spokesperson said he intended to sign the bill into law.

Both Wolf and fellow Democrats, including a dozen Black lawmakers from urban districts made clear that the reforms were nothing more than a first step. There are at least fifteen more proposals sitting in the House and Senate, including far-reaching policy changes that could face stern opposition from police unions.

They include:

  • Tightening the state’s use-of-force law. Police unions have said the bill could be unconstitutional.
  • Giving the state Attorney General’s office the authority to “oversee, investigate and prosecute” all alleged murders by police officers.
  • Changing first responder collective bargaining rules, such as police’s right to appeal disciplinary action.
  • Reforming state certification of police officers, including creating a new independent board with the power to investigate complaints. 
  • Codifying the right of citizens to record police in public.
  • Requiring local approval from a governing body for local police departments to acquire federal surplus military equipment.

With protesters still taking to the streets across the commonwealth calling for action, lawmakers saw no reason to let up.

“These bills have been sitting in committee for some time, and we have the ability to move them,” Rep. Morgan Cephas, D-Philadelphia, said. “As long as you can find common ground with this issue, we should just push as much as we can.”

How police accountability works in Pennsylvania

Whether police unions will go along the proposals, and the Legislature’s Republican majority will advance them, is an open question. 

In a statement last week, the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, a union representing more than 4,400 state police officers, said it had “long supported” a statewide database but “most of the other reforms … long been in place in our department and training.”

The bills Wolf signed Tuesday both originated in the House and advanced out of the chamber’s Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by stalwart conservative Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin.

Two bills originating in the Senate now sit in Kauffman’s committee, awaiting action. In total, they would:

  • Require each police department to keep records of every use-of-force incident. The State Police will then release a yearly report with the information
  • Mandate each police department adopt a use-of-force policy, train officers in it, and release the policy to the public
  • Ban officers from using chokeholds

Kauffman would not commit to votes on either the Senate bills or other Democratic bills as of last month.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who negotiated an agreement on the private hiring database with police chiefs and police union heads, said he also supports the chokehold ban.

Besides police reforms Shapiro said the state needed to put more public money into education, housing and mental health support to aid communities of color.

“If we invest in those things, they’ll be less cases on my desk, DAs’ desks, and local police chiefs’ desks,” Shapiro said.

In the streets, Black Lives Matter protesters have called for those dollars to come from police budgets. For example, the State Police received $368.6 million in last year’s budget. The state also transfers billions from a road repair fund to fund the state troopers.

But neither Shapiro nor Wolf would say where the funding for a more expansive social safety net, commonly targeted by the Republican-controlled General Assembly, should come from.

“That’s the eternal question in democratic politics, with a small ‘d’,” Wolf said.