Citizen group set to review Pa. State Police use-of-force and racial bias incidents

In this file photo from June 1, 2020, protesters march down Interstate 676 in Philadelphia, during a march calling for justice over the death of George Floyd. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

In this file photo from June 1, 2020, protesters march down Interstate 676 in Philadelphia, during a march calling for justice over the death of George Floyd. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

State police shootings, use-of-force and potential bias will now be investigated by one of three independent committees.

The panels are housed under a Citizen Advisory Commission Gov. Tom Wolf set up in the wake of racial justice protests, after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Those protests called for greater police accountability and a thorough review of the way law enforcement interacts with communities of color.

21 people from across the commonwealth sit on the commission and include lawyers, community leaders, elected officials and members of the public.

“The Commonwealth is committed to bipartisan criminal justice reforms that are fair and inclusive and support public safety,” Wolf wrote in an April 30 order creating the commission.

Each is designed to look at how the State Police, Capitol Police or state Park Rangers investigated a few specific types of incidents that might have hurt or killed someone.

The Critical Incident Committee will look at police shootings. Another, called the Use of Force Committee, will review incidents when police hurt or killed someone and a gun wasn’t involved.

A third, the Bias-Based Policing Committee, will look at accusations of racial bias or discimination by police.

“The scope…is to determine whether the investigations were prompt, fair, impartial, complete and performed in a manner consistent with applicable policies,” Commission Chairman Sha Brown said during a meeting Thursday. Brown is also the Deputy Inspector General for Law Enforcement Oversight at the Office of the State Inspector General.

The citizen panels’ work begins amid public outcry over the death of 19-year-old Christian Hall, who state troopers shot late last December as he was having a mental health crisis on a bridge overlooking Interstate 80 in Monroe County. A video on social media appears to show Hall with his hands up moments before he’s shot.

Hall’s family and attorneys called on Pennsylvania State Police to investigate the incident in February. In late March, a Monroe County district attorney declared troopers were justified in shooting him because he appeared to have pointed a firearm at them. That was later determined to be a pellet gun.

Commission member Elizabeth Pittinger, who directs Pittsburgh’s Citizen Police Review Board, said examining whether use-of-force investigations like that were fair is crucial, especially as police misconduct continues in places across the nation.

During Thursday’s Citizen Advisory Commission meeting, Pittinger mentioned newly released body camera footage that appears to show how Louisiana state troopers beat Ronald Greene to death after a high-speed chase in 2019. The agency then gave his family false or misleading accounts of his death.

“It will reinforce our own, I hope, recognition of the responsibility that we have to ensure that law enforcement in Pennsylvania isn’t like law enforcement in some other states,” she said.

Brown said the three committees will begin their work in the coming weeks. The commission itself will meet quarterly and review past and future incidents involving state police agencies. While its work has only just begun, Pittinger said she wants the practice of investigating the investigators to become common.

“Other departments will follow suit. You [Deputy Brown] will be establishing the standard for good policing in the commonwealth,” she said.

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