State Rep. Summer Lee, D-Allegheny, speaks at a 2021 state Capitol news conference where she and other Pa. House Democrats rolled out a package of police reform proposals (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)
Democrats in the state House on Tuesday unveiled a quintet of police reform proposals they say will provide for increased oversight and training for law enforcement, even as they seek to rebuild the bonds of trust with communities of Pennsylvanians who have come to view police officers with suspicion and even disdain.
The end goal, the lawmakers said, is to avert the kind of fatal interaction between police officers and such young, unarmed black youth and men as Antwon Rose II, of East Pittsburgh, and David Jones, of Philadelphia, who were both shot and killed in separate incidents, sparking protests and public outcries in their hometowns.
“We had little hope for justice for an unarmed black man who was shot in the back,” said Rep. Summer Lee, an Allegheny County Democrat, whose district neighbors the community where Rose, 17, was shot and killed as he fled former East Pittsburgh Police Officer Michael Rosfeld. In March, a jury in Harrisburg found Rosfeld not guilty of charges of criminal homicide in connection with Rose’s death.
“The community has been demanding answers,” Lee continued. “The cry that ‘black lives matter’ will no longer go unanswered.”
The bills, some of which have been introduced in previous legislative sessions, or have yet to garner the standard memos seeking co-sponsors, would:
- Clarify when police officers are empowered to use deadly force and under what circumstances the use of deadly force could be employed.
- Require the state Attorney General’s Office to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate any incident of deadly force by a law enforcement.
- Reform the arbitration process in disciplinary matters involving the police.
- Strengthen the certification and decertification process for police officers and establish a statewide standard for training law enforcement officers.
- Reform hiring practices for police officers to provide greater transparency by including any civil, criminal, or ethical complaints filed against an officer in his or her personnel record and to fully explain why an officer might have left a previous job.
“These bills are not anti-police,” Lee said Tuesday. “This is legislation that will help our police departments and it will help our communities. We want to create an environment where police departments have every tool that they need so that they are safely policing our communities; so that they are getting every training that they need. We want to ensure that our communities are safe. But also that our departments are safe.”
House Democratic Whip Jordan Harris, of Philadelphia, called for more stringent training and certification standards for police officers. He said the state should impose on law enforcement the same strict licensing and continuing education requirements already required for barbers and attorneys.
“Prayers alone are not enough,” Harris said. “We, as a legislative body, must do things differently if our constituents are to have faith [in the police].”
A 2018 analysis of FBI data by the online news publication Vox found that U.S. police kill black people at greater rates than white people. In 2012, black people made up 31 percent of police killing victims, even though they comprised just 13 percent of the country’s total population, Vox reported. The online news site acknowledged that its data was incomplete “because [it was] based on voluntary reports from police agencies around the country.” Even so, the data “[highlighted] the vast disparities in how police use force,” Vox reported.
Cutting down — or even eliminating the disparate use of force — is the main goal of a use-of-force bill that Lee is co-sponsoring with fellow Allegheny County Democratic Rep. Ed Gainey. Lee acknowledged Tuesday that there are situations where it’s appropriate and necessary for officers to use deadly force. But those situations should be the rare exceptions, she noted, and officers should have clear ideas of when the use of deadly force is, and is not, appropriate.
“We want de-escalation” before a situation turns violent, Lee said, adding that she wants to make sure that advocates and law enforcement organizations have a seat at the table as those standards are formulated.
The Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, which represents state police troopers, said it was “not prepared” to comment on the proposals.
Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadephia, who sponsored the special prosecutor bill in last year’s legislative session and is sponsoring it again this year, said his plan was critical to making sure that officers accused in shootings did not benefit from any favoritism from home turf prosecutors.
“We don’t do justice to justice by pretending she is blind. She’s not,” Sims said, adding that “the data” points to racial and ethnic disparities in the dispensation of justice. “We don’t say it enough.”
Democratic lawmakers said Tuesday that they’re hoping their proposals, as they emerge more fully, will garner broad bipartisan support and land on Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk before the end of the current two-year session.
Mike Straub, a spokesperson for House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said GOP lawmakers were willing to have discussions about the proposals, but would not “be willing to jump to conclusions on things that would impose burdens on so many law enforcement officers who are working to keep us safe.”
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