‘We had to start somewhere’: Pa. officials say police misconduct database is a step toward reform

By: - July 16, 2021 1:45 pm

(Photo from stock.adobe.com/Maryland Matters)

A new statewide database will let Pennsylvania police agencies check for “red flags” among prospective hires, but it’s just the beginning of efforts to weed out bad actors.

The online tool, which launched Wednesday, contains information about officers criminal charges or who have disciplinary records — “red flags” that include excessive force, harassment, theft, discrimination, sexual abuse and misconduct, and dishonest practices.

However, police departments statewide will primarily use it during the hiring process.

“We had to start somewhere,” Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, told reporters Friday in Harrisburg, where lawmakers and police officials celebrated the database’s launch.

The database is the result of a bill the GOP-controlled Legislature passed last year to identify officers with a history of misconduct and to prevent their hiring at different departments across the state. 

It comes one year after Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf signed a police oversight reform bill into law, following the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

It’s also something Michelle Kenney, the mother of Antwon Rose Jr., has been hoping for since her son was born. Rose was fatally shot by a Pittsburgh police officer in 2018; he was 17 years old.

“Because while I was pregnant with Antwon, the department I was working for was in the process of hiring, and it really irritated me that I knew that, based on the law, those departments were not permitted to tell us what they had done before,” Kenney said during a press conference in Pittsburgh on Wednesday.

She added: “And I understand that the public is going to say, ‘Oh, it’s only a database, we still have other work to do.’ That is so true. But to get this database in the state of Pennsylvania, we have to admit, it is groundbreaking.”

The legislation also requires law enforcement agencies across the state to maintain and provide employment records for officers to a prospective hiring agency.

“If you’re one of these folks who really tarnish the badge, you’re going to be thinking: ‘Oh well, if I leave here, I’m going to show up on the database,’” Rabb said. “Now there’s a level of accountability so that you don’t do anything wrong going forward.”

Police misconduct laws are primarily closed to the public, according to a national analysis by the Associated Press. Illinois maintains a professional conduct database. 

Local police departments must report resignations, firings, or suspensions to the database when an officer violates department policy. However, the database is closed to the public, so individuals must contact a department directly for information.

While database information is subject to state right-to-know laws, the only publicly available information from the Pennsylvania database is a hiring report, Rabb said. 

The hiring report is triggered if a department hires someone with a red flag, so if an officer violates policy and leaves a department before a disciplinary report is finalized, there’s no formal public record of the offense, Rabb explained.

That’s something that can be addressed through the regulatory process, Rabb said. But before the database launched, police chiefs had no way to know if they were hiring an asset or a liability, he added.

“We’re not perfect,” York City Police Chief Michael Muldrow said Friday. “We recognize we have a few bad apples in our bunch, and contrary to what is oftentimes portrayed or believed about police, I think I speak for all of us when I say we want our bad apples out too.”

Officers who “tarnish” the work of law enforcement dissuade people from becoming police, Muldrow added. But the database is a step toward change — something he said is necessary.

“It will undoubtedly help to fill in some of those cracks that individuals have been able to slip through thus far,” he said.

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