Everything you need to know about Pa. police reform efforts by the legislature

(Kalim A. Bhatti/The Philadelphia Inquirer)

(Kalim A. Bhatti/The Philadelphia Inquirer)

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The Pennsylvania legislature has adjourned for its summer recess after sending two police reform bills to Gov. Tom Wolf.

Their passage was spurred by protests, both inside and outside the Capitol, in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. Democrats have called the measures first steps, as they press GOP leadership to go further and take up more complex issues like curtailing when Pennsylvania officers can use deadly force.

Two other reform bills that unanimously passed the Senate in June are still pending before the House. Lawmakers there have until the end of the year to pass the measures before the legislative session ends and all pending legislation is thrown out.

Bills waiting to be signed by Gov. Tom Wolf

As of July 9, the legislature has sent two reform bills to Wolf’s desk. A spokesperson for the governor said he plans to sign them next week.

House Bill 1841, sponsored by Rep. Harry Readshaw (D., Allegheny) and Rep. Chris Rabb (D., Philadelphia): This legislation will require all law enforcement agencies in the state to consult a new database with information on disciplinary actions, performance evaluations, and attendance records during a background check.

Currently, there is no uniform way for local police departments in Pennsylvania to share instances of officer misconduct with other agencies, meaning someone fired for an egregious reason could find a job with another department.

The legislation would also require an agency to disclose information about any investigations into current or former officers in writing. The effort, however, stops short of making misconduct records available to the public, a move recently taken in New York and New Jersey.

Wolf endorsed the database legislation, as did Attorney General Josh Shapiro and the heads of powerful police unions for the state and Philadelphia. Though a positive step forward, the database does little to further public accountability and transparency, experts say.

The bill does make available under the state’s open-records law “hiring reports” that must be compiled if a department chooses to hire an applicant with a criminal conviction or binding disciplinary action for wrongdoing, including excessive force, discrimination, and sexual abuse.

The Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission (MPOETC), which sets statewide training and certification standards, will determine how detailed those reports will be.

House Bill 1910, sponsored by Rep. Dan WIlliams (D., Chester): The other measure before Wolf will require MPOETC to train local officers on how to treat people of diverse backgrounds and require annual in-service training on use-of-force and de-escalation techniques.

But more training doesn’t necessarily mean better outcomes. Andy Hoover, a spokesperson for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, referenced the death of Osaze Osagie, a 29-year-old black man with chronic mental illness who was shot and killed by State College police in 2019.

“The officers had what is considered the gold standard of police training on [mental health] crisis intervention. And still they killed him, with no [mental health] professional on the scene,” Hoover said. “In that case, at least, more training failed to save Osaze’s life.”

In an internal June newsletter, MPOETC training unit director Isaac Suydam wrote that developing training for officers is difficult and training does not always change outcome.

“[S]ometimes we fall into the trap of believing operational mistakes indicate a lack of effective training, and while they may, that is not always the case,” Suydam said. “Sometimes, despite the training they have received, officers make bad choices.”

Reform legislation still pending

Two other reform measures unanimously passed the Senate on June 24 and were referred to the House Judiciary Committee on June 29.

Mike Straub, a spokesperson for House Republicans, said the chair and members of the Judiciary Committee “will determine the next steps on those bills, and any future legislation on the topic.”

Senate Bill 459, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny): This legislation would require police departments to report all use-of-force incidents to the State Police. The State Police, in turn, would deliver an annual report to lawmakers and the attorney general about how often officers used force and when it resulted in serious injury or death.

A spokesperson for Costa said the report would be made available to the public, while a State Police spokesperson said that was not the case. There is no language guaranteeing the report’s release to the public currently written in the bill.

The bill also does not require departments to track the race or gender of people that officers use force against.

Senate Bill 1205, sponsored by Sen. Sharif Street (D., Philadelphia): This bill would require every local police department to develop and post online a use-of-force policy. It also limits the use of chokeholds to situations where deadly force is warranted.

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