As they compete for one of Pennsylvania’s most hotly contested congressional seats, an incumbent Republican and his Democratic challenger are both trying to walk a fine line on policing reform.
Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick is seeking a third term in the First Congressional District, which covers all of Bucks County and part of Montgomery.
As conversations about policing reform have surged to the forefront of local, state and national politics in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, both Fitzpatrick and the Democratic nominee, Bucks County solicitor and Ivyland Borough Councilmember Christina Finello, are treading carefully.
Fitzpatrick was one of three Republicans who voted in favor of a Democratic-sponsored House bill, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, that would require local departments to ban chokeholds and other restraints considered dangerous in order to receive federal policing dollars. It would also prohibit no-knock warrants — which led to the death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville — and make it easier to criminally and civilly prosecute police for misconduct. The bill is currently stalled in the U.S. Senate.
Fitzpatrick followed up that vote with his own bill that seeks to check the extent to which municipalities can change their policing tactics.
His newly introduced measure, which is co-sponsored by two Democrats, as well as fellow Republicans, would cut off several federal grants to any municipality that “abolishes or disbands the police department with no intention of reconstituting” it, or “significantly reduces the police department’s budget without reallocating a portion of that money to any other community policing program.”
The only exception, the bill says, would be if the jurisdiction at hand faced a significant dip in revenues, necessitating the defunding.
Will Kiley, a spokesperson for Fitzpatrick, said the congressman is trying to take a “bipartisan” approach “that accomplishes meaningful reforms while still supporting our women and men who serve in law enforcement and protect our communities.”
That approach, he said, includes changes to policies on chokeholds, no-knock warrants and other uses of force, plus the creation of misconduct databases, “but in a manner that supports and improves law enforcement by adding funding for things like body and dashboard cameras, community policing, enhanced training, etc.”
He added, Fitzpatrick also supports reforming qualified immunity provisions that protect law enforcement officers from “potentially frivolous lawsuits.”
“These are not mutually exclusive concepts,” Kiley said. “We can and must accomplish both.”
In her own statement, Finello struck a similar tone to Fitzpatrick’s, saying her background in mental health and experience leading de-escalation training with police have given her “a unique perspective on the challenges involved in reforms.”
She opposes defunding police departments, but said she supports “reforming qualified immunity, increasing data reporting, and banning chokeholds,” as well as “providing additional resources for officer training and community-based policing.”
“First and foremost, we have to end institutional racism in our policing system and ensure there is transparency and accountability,” she said.
Despite their common ground, Fitzpatrick and Finello have sparred on social media, with Fitzpatrick recently claiming on Twitter that his opponent does, in fact, support defunding police departments.
— Brian Fitzpatrick (@BrianFitzUSA) July 27, 2020
A spokesperson for Finello said she hadn’t seen that tweet.
Finello, in turn, has focused on painting Fitzpatrick as being aligned with President Donald Trump, tweeting a video saying the congressman “is too weak to stand up to Donald Trump” on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Our district deserves better than a representative who sides with Donald Trump when it matters most.
When I’m in Congress, I’ll fight to put our families first again and I’ll never turn my back on Bucks and Montgomery Counties.
— Christina Finello (@FinelloForPA) July 15, 2020
Residents of the First Congressional District are — as is common in the Philadelphia suburbs — relatively moderate voters, though the Cook Political Report has consistently ranked the district as leaning Republican. Buck County voted for Hillary Clinton, who only beat Donald Trump by less than 1% in the same year that Fitzpatrick easily beat Democratic state Rep. Steve Santarsiero.
An analysis of GOP margins in 2012 and 2016 shows that while voters in three key suburban Pennsylvania counties — Montgomery, Chester and Delaware — voted in lower numbers for Trump than they had for Republican Mitt Romney four years earlier, voters in Bucks more or less maintained their rate of votes cast for the GOP.
Get daily updates from WHYY News!