Allegheny County Democrats want Turzai to call a session on policing

The ask follows the police shooting of Antwon Rose II in East Pittsburgh.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline
Sarah Anne Hughes

Updated 2:35 p.m.

More than a dozen Allegheny County Democrats are calling on House Speaker Mike Turzai to bring members back to Harrisburg for a dedicated session on policing.

A July 10 letter making that request was sent to Turzai in the wake of the death of Antwon Rose II, who was fatally shot in the back by an East Pittsburgh police officer in June. The effort was spearheaded by representatives Austin Davis, Ed Gainey, and Jake Wheatley and signed by 11 other House members, as well as the county’s three Democratic senators.

Calling the House back to Harrisburg during the summer break would show what a critical and urgent issue this is in the commonwealth, Wheatley told The Incline. It would also give members a dedicated time to talk about and vet different ideas instead of trying to cram the conversation into a handful of scheduled session days this September.

“We deal with legislation trying to address crime on a regular basis because we know how important it is,” the letter states. “That is why you have a historic opportunity to bring everyone together to focus on the other side of the coin.”

The letter calls for a session dedicated to a Law Enforcement Safety and Accountability agenda. When asked what that looks like, Wheatley said, “Everything is on the table.”

That includes a number of ideas Wheatley and his colleagues raised shortly after Rose’s death, most notably a proposal for statewide oversight and certification of police. “People are scratching their heads,” he said. “Why isn’t their statewide oversight of law enforcement?”

Wheatley said he planned to call Turzai’s office Monday to follow up on the letter.

“We’d like to get started before we go back in the fall,” the representative noted, although he added that more session dates in September would be welcome, too. Ideally, the coalition supporting these reforms would be able to make their case for bills in both chambers this fall.

The letter also goes to great lengths to stress that the session would not be anti-police. Wheatley said members of the law enforcement community will be invited to the table to share their ideas.

“No one is looking to demonize or demean law enforcement,” the letter reads. “We all know they play an integral role in our communities. We simply want to ensure we’ve done everything we can do to provide them with the tools and training critical to enabling their success and increasing the public’s trust.”

On the Senate side, both Jay Costa and Wayne Fontana are planning to introduce bills related to Rose’s death.

Costa’s includes a call to improve training at municipal police departments — there are more than 100 in Allegheny County alone — and for the Municipal Police Officers’ Education & Training Commission to create a uniform use-of-force policy.

Fontana’s adds muscle to a proposal passed this week by the Allegheny County Council to create a civilian police review board. “Without state legislation, the county will only have the authority to hold its own police department accountable,” a memo calling for co-sponsors states. “Otherwise, it would be up to each municipal police department to voluntarily partake in the review board.”

Wheatley said he hasn’t seen any specific language for Costa’s proposals, but added that he’s open to the senator’s ideas. A dedicated session, he said, would give members the opportunity to talk through their ideas and advance the best ones.

“These things need to be vetted out,” Wheatley said.

While there may not be a dedicated session on policing in Harrisburg, there will be an opportunity to vet ideas in Allegheny County. Members of the House and Senate Democratic Policy committees will hold a public hearing July 17 in Wilkinsburg on police-community relations. The hearing is scheduled to feature testimony from Allegheny County Police and the ACLU, among other witnesses. According to a spokesperson for Senate Democrats, “committee members may take questions from the public depending on timeframe.”

A public hearing on police-community relations

Members of the state House and Senate Democratic Policy committees are holding a public hearing on police-community relations in the wake of Antwon Rose II's death. Witnesses scheduled to speak include Allegheny County Police Superintendent Coleman J. McDonough, American Civil Liberty Union Legislative Director Elizabeth Randol, and activist Leon Ford. The public may be given an opportunity to ask questions if time allows.

Where:Hosanna House at Wallace Event Center at 807 Wallace Ave. (Wilkinsburg)

When:July 17, 2018 at 1:00 p.m.