Three takeaways from the first day of the Pa. Senate’s police reform hearings

By: - June 17, 2020 5:55 pm

Senate judiciary chair Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, launches the first day of the Senate’s law enforcement hearings on Wednesday.

The two chambers of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly took markedly different approaches in responding to the public unrest and outrage that swept the Keystone State in the early days of June, after a Minneapolis police officer was charged with the murder of George Floyd. 

Last week, Black lawmakers in the state House staged a sit-in demanding action on a raft of bills overhauling policing tactics and oversight across the Commonwealth. 

Their 90-minute demonstration led to negotiations with former House speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, who arranged for some of those measures to come up for committee votes in the final days of his tenure. 

The legislation – which includes measures that bolster police training and institute more rigorous hiring practices – needs approval from the House before it can travel to the Senate. 

But unlike their counterparts in the House, leaders in the upper chamber have not yet committed to act on any of the measures. 

The Senate Judiciary and Law and Justice committees opted instead to schedule two days of hearings to allow dozens of law enforcement officials, community organizers and advocates to sound off on the proposals.

Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, said the hearings would serve as a precursor to any votes the Senate might take on reform bills. Here are three takeaways from the first hearing, which took place over the course of four hours on Wednesday. 

There’s wide support for a private database tracking police misconduct

One of the bills House lawmakers approved this week creates a statewide database of police personnel files and requires law enforcement agencies to search it before making new hires. 

The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Harry Readshaw, D-Allegheny, first gained traction in 2018, after East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld shot and killed 17-year-old Antwon Rose during a traffic stop. Rosfeld had quit his last job under threat of termination. 

On Wednesday, law enforcement officials and community organizers alike told lawmakers that a database would go a long way toward  weeding out bad cops and restoring community trust in the police. 

How police accountability works in Pennsylvania

“I think the database bill will get out truly bad actors so that they’re not going to jump to another department,” said Greg Rowe, legislative director for the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, which represents the state’s elected county prosecutors. 

There remains some debate over which state agency should administer the database and who should be able to view it. 

Attorney General Josh Shapiro told lawmakers that the database should be housed within the Municipal Police Officer Education and Training Commission, a state board that certifies and sets training standards for law enforcement, and that it should be largely kept private.

“I don’t think that this is a database that necessarily needs to have all of its contents be made public,” Shapiro said. “I think it needs to be viewed as a resource for law enforcement, to be able to make smart hiring decisions.”

Some speakers who addressed the Senate panel advocated for more dramatic changes in how police officers are hired. 

Brandi Fisher, a community organizer from Pittsburgh, said municipalities should cut their ranks of police officers and reinvest their public safety budgets in affordable housing programs, education and other public services.

But Fisher also said stronger accountability measures for police could help repair relationships with communities that may distrust them. 

“There’s a lack of trust because there’s a lack of accountability,” Fisher said. “We need to start [reforms] by making sure we’re creating a system of transparency [and] accountability” 

Lawmakers want evidence-based policy. But Pennsylvania’s lax data laws pose obstacles

One of the proposals that has gotten fresh attention in the wake of George Floyd’s death is a measure from Rep. Summer Lee, D-Allegheny, that limits the circumstances under which officers can use force against civilians. 

State law sets few boundaries on police use of force, and each of Pennsylvania’s 1,100 law enforcement agencies can adopt unique policies that dictate when they can use guns or brute strength against civilians. 

Shapiro said Wednesday that the state Attorney General’s office bans its agents from using chokeholds. But he urged lawmakers to evaluate evidence about use-of-force tactics and their consequences before making state-level policy.

“It is important that we study how these tactics are really used and the negative consequences they can have, and consider all of those facts before looking to ban one type of action over another,” Shapiro said.  “I’m not suggesting I wouldn’t be for it, I’m just suggesting it needs to be evidence-based.” 

Baker echoed that sentiment, and said her committee will be gathering “additional information and data in the coming days and weeks related to use-of-force – how it is deployed, when it is deployed, and how frequently it’s deployed. Those are very very important questions that these committees need to answer.”

However, it’s impossible to know how often officers use force against civilians since police departments aren’t required to report that data to the state. The same goes for civilian complaints against officers. The public can obtain some police records through the state’s Right to Know Law, but Elizabeth Randol, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said that’s no substitute for comprehensive and mandatory disclosures by departments. 

“It’s difficult to recommend solutions if these [records] remain in a black box,” Randol told lawmakers Wednesday.

School police may come under fire

Recent debates about police funding and conduct have led to renewed scrutiny on the role of police in school buildings. 

Pennsylvania state law allows three types of school security personnel, whose titles change depending on who pays their salary and what kind of duties they perform. Data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education show that the ranks of school police officers – law enforcement officers employed by schools, who have power to make arrests – grew by almost 30 percent in the 2018-2019 school year. 

Advocates in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are already pressuring local school boards to cut ties with campus police departments. But state lawmakers have the power to regulate school police across the Commonwealth. 

In a brief exchange about school police Wednesday, advocates challenged the idea that law enforcement agents belong in schools at all. 

“When it comes to having police in schools, I’d ask you to ask yourself, ‘what are the roles of police officers in society?’” Fisher said. “And when we answer that question … then I would ask you why we would ever think that they belong in a place of education.”

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.