Here’s how Pennsylvania Democrats want to improve police-community relations

Legislators met 4 miles from where Antwon Rose II was fatally shot by a police officer.

improving community-police relations
Colin Deppen / the incline

Updated 7:21 p.m.

Four miles from where Antwon Rose II was fatally shot, Democratic state lawmakers convened a hearing today as they look for a way to mend the relationship between police and the communities they serve and also to prevent similar deaths in the future.

“We have some great law enforcement officers out here, and I would leave my children with them,” state Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Allegheny, said. “But there’s also pressure from them. They say we’re starting to get nervous.”

In testifying during today’s state legislative hearing in Wilkinsburg, Allegheny County Police Superintendent Coleman McDonough confirmed that officers want improvements, too. Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert told lawmakers the same thing. McDonough and Schubert were two of nine individuals — among them representatives of the state police, Wilkinsburg police, ACLU and advocacy groups — to testify. The hearing was called by the state Senate and House Democratic Policy committees.

McDonough stressed the role of the Rose case in renewing this discussion in Pennsylvania, particularly in western Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh, which has been a hotbed of protest since Rose’s death. East Pittsburgh Officer Michael Rosfeld fatally shot the 17-year-old on June 19, and county District Attorney’s office has since charged Rosfeld with criminal homicide.

Others pointed out that this conversation was underway in communities like Wilkinsburg and Pittsburgh long ago.

“This brought about a clarion call to improve police services and police-community relations in Allegheny County,” McDonough said of Rose’s death. “Never have we seen a greater need to rebuild bridges between police and the communities we serve.”

McDonough also said that this divide between police and community members is self-perpetuating. As he explained it, bad impressions of the police in minority communities lead to fewer minorities becoming officers. That results in less-diverse departments and, in minority communities especially, fewer police who belong to or recognize as familiar the neighborhoods they patrol.

Elizabeth Randol, legislative director of ACLU of Pennsylvania

Elizabeth Randol, legislative director of ACLU of Pennsylvania

colin deppen / the incline

A matter of public policy

The scope of today’s hearing was how to overcome this, as a matter of public policy.

There were numerous suggestions: Everything from minimum educational requirements for officers to psychological assessments to diversity training to residency requirements mandating officers live in the cities they serve. (Pittsburgh tried this and lost in court.) There was extensive talk of weeding out bad actors and of vetting procedures and how officers are screened — or sometimes not screened — before being given a badge and a gun.

“Police have the power and authority to take your freedom or your life, and that’s an awesome amount of power,” said Wilkinsburg Police Chief Ophelia Coleman, one of the speakers.

For that reason, Coleman said assessing a law enforcement officer’s ability to perform his or her duties is a process that should not be left incomplete. But with no central repository for officer information and histories in Pennsylvania, it sometimes is.

McDonough spoke of departments and municipalities who’ve been known to withhold information about an officer’s past indiscretions from prospective employers for fear of being sued by the officer for libel. And the conversation returned multiple times to questions about whether more centralized or regionalized police forces — in addition to more oversight from state officials like the attorney general — could streamline procedures, fill in these gaps, improve services and avoid issues like this going forward.

As it currently stands, policing in Pennsylvania is a highly fractured patchwork of municipal departments. Allegheny County alone has more than 100.

Outside the Tuesday hearing

Outside the Tuesday hearing

colin deppen / the incline

No formal legislative plan

There is no formal legislative plan from the Democrats as of yet. Instead, today’s hearing was as much about brainstorming and informing that process as it was about proving public interest in this issue remains high.

In recent weeks, state Sen. Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said he intends to introduce legislation that would up pay and training for police officers with municipal departments in Pennsylvania. There have also been plans announced for Democrat-authored bills requiring cultural awareness education for new recruits and the development of a statewide database to “permit transparency in the hiring of police officers.” None has been formally introduced.

Approached after today’s hearing, a few Democratic lawmakers — there were more than a dozen present over the course of the hearing — said they don’t see this as a partisan issue.

“I think [Republicans] understand these challenges are in all communities. This incident in East Pittsburgh could be in any community in the Commonwealth,” Costa said.

He added, “Testimony like we heard today makes the case that these types of police accountability measures are necessary. The experts and people in the relevant fields that testified today demonstrate to the GOP that this is a topic that warrants discussion and warrants moving legislation forward.”

Last week, a group of 17 Allegheny County Democrats, Costa and Gainey included, sent a letter to Republican Speaker of the House Mike Turzai asking Turzai to call House members back for a dedicated session on policing. Turzai’s office told The Incline on Monday that he wouldn’t grant the request.

But Gainey was undeterred, explaining after today’s hearing that he still believes there is enough momentum to get legislation proposed and ultimately to the governor’s desk.

“Today we heard from law enforcement and community members that we know we need to make a change. It’s not about us versus them,” Gainey said. “I hope anyone in the GOP would understand and would want to do something that saves cops and saves people in the community.”

State Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, said voting power is also a factor and that members of the public have more agency on this issue than many realize.

“First things first, we have to get on the same page, and I think the community is going to have a very big role in pushing this agenda,” Harris said. “I think you’re going to see a grassroots push for legislation. And when folks begin to vote with this issue in mind, then people will begin to listen, lawmakers will begin to listen.”

In the meantime, Gainey said Democrats will continue discussing their options on this front in preparation for the fall session.

At the end of today’s hearing, Gainey said, “If we’re gonna change things, it’s because we’re going to continue to bring the pressure, and we will continue to fight until we get the legislation necessary to save lives.”

He said it’s something both police and residents want, and something both political parties should want as well.

Correction, July 17: The department that charged Rosfeld has been corrected.