Pa. Senate sends Wolf police reform bills creating new statewide misconduct database, PTSD screening for cops

Angel Rivera, a 20-year old Harrisburg resident, holds a sign in front of the state Capitol on June 1, 2020. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Answering the calls of protesters who have occupied Pennsylvania’s streets throughout the month of June, the state Senate on Tuesday voted unanimously to send Gov. Tom Wolf a bill creating a new, statewide database that allows law enforcement agencies to share police misconduct records. 

Wolf has indicated he will sign the measure sponsored by Rep. Harry Readshaw, D-Allegheny, along with another bill the Senate approved Tuesday requiring law enforcement agencies to screen officers for post traumatic stress disorder and to train them in bias prevention and deescalation tactics. 

The votes mark the first legislative reforms the General Assembly has passed since May, when George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer set off protests nationwide against police brutality and racism.

Pennsylvania lawmakers have typically been reluctant to impose new accountability measures on police officers, who work in more than 1,100 municipal and regional forces across the state and largely answer to local authorities

But lawmakers who addressed reporters Tuesday said it was impossible for the General Assembly to ignore the sustained public outcry over Floyd’s death, which led to protests in more than 150 towns and cities in Pennsylvania, including those in traditionally conservative parts of the state.

“Protest is leading to policy,” Sen. Vince Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said Tuesday evening, when Senate Democrats addressed the press after the vote. “And what we’re saying to everyone who has been in the streets …. Is ‘keep it up.’”

The bills the Senate advanced Tuesday represent only part of the reform package that lawmakers fast-tracked this month, after Black lawmakers staged a takeover of the House floor to call for immediate action on police oversight.

The state House is expected to return to Harrisburg next week for final votes on bills that limit the use of police chokeholds and require law enforcement agencies to adopt policies governing the use of force by their officers. 

But the package falls far short of what some advocates sought in the days following Floyd’s death, which surfaced painful memories of police killings in Pennsylvania. 

After 17-year-old Antwon Rose was gunned down by an East Pittsburgh police officer in June 2018, lawmakers called on the Legislature to tighten the state law that gives police broad latitude to use force against civilians. 

Lawmakers have failed to advance a proposal from Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pittsburgh, amending the state’s use of force law. 

They also have watered down a bill from Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, requiring police agencies to adopt individual use-of-force policies, and to document and disclose their incidents that involve lethal and non-lethal force.

A version of Costa’s bill is awaiting a final vote in the House. But advocates say it doesn’t do enough to collect data about bias in policing or ensure that data on police force would be made public. 

Costa said Tuesday that the measures that gained traction this month were the product of compromise with the legislature’s Republican majority.

But still, he said, “We all know that our work is not done, and there’s more to do.”