Pa. House Democrats will talk how police officers use deadly force — without the police

By: - August 27, 2019 6:30 am

Pa. State Police SUV (Pa. State Police Facebook Page

Update, 11:42 a.m., August 28: Tuesday night, after the hearing, Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Allegheny, tweeted that she brought a local police chief to speak at the meeting.

In summer 2018, a white East Pittsburgh police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Antwon Rose Jr. as he ran from a traffic stop.

For then-candidate, now-state Rep. Summer Lee, D-Allegheny, Rose’s death became a rallying cry in her fight to help her community and to change Harrisburg.

“We had little hope for justice for an unarmed black man who was shot in the back,” Lee said of Rose earlier this year. “The community has been demanding answers. The cry that ‘black lives matter’ will no longer go unanswered.”

On Tuesday, Lee’s bill to limit how police may use deadly force in Pennsylvania is set for a hearing in Rankin, a small borough outside Pittsburgh that Rose, 17, called home.

The hearing was organized by the House Democratic Policy Committee. Unlike a meeting in Harrisburg before a legislative committee, these policy hearings are planned by a party’s caucus, not a committee chair. 

The policy hearings are intended more to flesh out initiatives than to consider specific legislation that could soon come up for a vote.

But while lawmakers will come armed with plenty of questions, they’ll be without one key participant — the police.

Why it matters

In March, a jury found the police officer, Michael Rosfeld, not guilty of charges of criminal homicide in connection with Rose’s death. An attorney representing Rose’s mother criticized Pennsylvania’s law as part of why Rosfeld was found not guilty.

“The charges the jury received today and deliberated on made it seem OK to shoot an unarmed fleeing suspect in the back,” the attorney, S. Lee Merritt, said after the verdict, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Both Rose’s death, and the subsequent not guilty verdict, drew protest in the streets of Pittsburgh as part of the wider Black Lives Matter movement, which aims to raise awareness around the killing of black people by police.

According to the Washington Post, police have shot and killed nearly 1,000 people each year for the past four years. Last year, police shot 23 people in Pennsylvania. 

Victims of police shootings are disproportionately black, according to the Post, a trend seen even more clearly among unarmed victims.

To address the issue, progressive-aligned politicians have pushed bills changing the laws that govern when police can use deadly force.

On Aug. 19, California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed such a bill into law. It changed the law from letting cops use deadly force when “objectively reasonable” to when it is “necessary” as a last resort.

Under current Pa. state law, a police officer may use deadly force “only when he believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury to himself or such other person, or when he believes both that:

  • such force is necessary to prevent the arrest from being defeated by resistance or escape; and
  • the person to be arrested has committed or attempted a forcible felony or is attempting to escape and possesses a deadly weapon, or otherwise indicates that he will endanger human life or inflict serious bodily injury unless arrested without delay.”

Lee called the current state law “vague” when she officially released her bill text in June. She and fellow Allegheny County Democratic Rep. Ed Gainey are the prime sponsors.

Instead, Lee’s bill would limit the use of deadly force by police officers to instances where police are protecting themselves or the general public against an immediate or imminent threat of bodily injury.

One-way conversation

While Lee was hoping for a robust conversation on policing Tuesday, no law enforcement representatives are scheduled to be at the hearing. 

Lee told the Capital-Star that Democrats had done their due diligence and invited three organizations to participate; none could make it.

That includes both of the state’s main police unions — the state chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police and the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association — as well as the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association.

The FOP, which represents more than 40,000 state police officers, opted instead to submit written testimony opposing any changes to state use of force laws.

The testimony, seen by the Capital-Star, cites previous U.S. Supreme Court precedent from the 1989 case Graham vs. Connor in opposing any changes to Pennsylvania’s use of force laws.

The case found that “the ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, and its calculus must embody an allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation.”

As such, the state FOP said proposed changes could potentially violate the Constitution.

“Any legislation intended to ‘move the target’ by setting new and possibly unconstitutional legal standards for police uses of force risks upsetting a system that has worked successfully for Pennsylvanians for many years,” the testimony reads.

The testimony adds that the FOP could back extra spending for police training across the commonwealth.

California’s use of force bill was paired with increased funding for training, including deescalation, to allay law enforcement concerns.

Lee expressed disappointment that she and the committee wouldn’t have a law enforcement representative to talk to.

“It’s very hard to ask questions of a written statement,” she told the Capital-Star.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.