Allegheny County lawmakers unveil police oversight, training bills

The lawmakers drafted the bills after an East Pittsburgh officer fatally shot an unarmed 17-year-old.

A sign held at a protest for Antwon Rose II in Pittsburgh

A sign held at a protest for Antwon Rose II in Pittsburgh

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

Updated 3 p.m.

Three months after the death of Antwon Rose II, state lawmakers from the Pittsburgh area unveiled a package of bills aimed at improving oversight and training of municipal police departments.

Flanked by his colleagues inside the Allegheny County Courthouse, state Sen. Jay Costa said the bills were drafted after a public hearing and consultation with community groups, the state police, and the Fraternal Order of Police.

“We’re not here to point fingers at anybody,” said Rep. Ed Gainey, who was joined by fellow House members Austin Davis, Dan Miller, and Jake Wheatley. “We are here to talk about how to save a life.”

On June 19, East Pittsburgh Police Department officer Michael Rosfeld shot Rose three times as the unarmed 17-year-old ran from a vehicle. Rosfeld was charged with criminal homicide after days of protests.

One of Costa’s bills targets the Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission, which is tasked with setting the basic curriculum at the state’s academies. The legislation directs MPOETC to “develop a uniform policy on the use of force and deadly force by police officers and direct municipalities that lack such policies to adopt and post the MPOETC uniform policy.”

It’s not clear how many municipal police departments in Allegheny County — there are more than 100 — have use of force policies. The East Pittsburgh Police Department did not have such a policy at the time of Rose’s death, according to county Attorney General Stephen Zappala.

The legislation unveiled Thursday is broken down into three categories: community relations, police administration and management, and event response. The bills would:

  • Establish a professional oversight board to certify law enforcement officers, one similar to existing boards that oversee medicine, nursing, pharmacies and other fields. (“We need an independent body to oversee law enforcement like we oversee hair salons,” Wheatley said.)
  • Establish a Community Relations and Incident Response Team in the Office of Attorney General that would resolve community conflicts with law enforcement and respond to deadly force incidents.
  • Bolster the diversity of police recruits while improving training on issues like cultural awareness, sensitivity, and de-escalation tactics; create specialized units to respond in crisis situations, including officer-involved shootings, to provide immediate access to mental health counseling for police and community members; develop a statewide database of prior complaints made against an officer or any disciplinary actions taken against that officer for review by prospective employers. (There is currently no such mechanism in place.)
  • Improve police pay. (Miller said: “We need to keep the best police in that field and make sure they don’t need to do other work, other jobs to pay the bills.”)
  • Create a program studying the regionalization of police forces and the hurdles therein; create a regionalization grant program to incentivize consolidation of municipal police forces and cut down on the number of smaller departments employing part-time officers who, Miller said, are often underpaid and working elsewhere to make ends meet.
  • Create a bipartisan legislative caucus on cultural awareness in policing.
  • Create the Municipal Police Recruitment and Retention Program Fund, which would “make grants available for the purpose of hiring and retaining part-time police in municipalities.”

Costa said the bills’ creators, all Democrats, will also back an existing piece of legislation drafted by fellow Democrat Sen. Art Haywood of Philadelphia that would appoint a special prosecutor through the state Attorney General’s office in cases of police-involved shootings. Costa said none of the bills discussed Thursday are etched in stone.

As for whether Republicans in the majority will support the bills once introduced — which could happen as soon as next week, per Costa — the quartet of Democratic lawmakers on hand at the Allegheny County Courthouse appeared cautiously optimistic.

“I know that when we speak to [Republican lawmakers], I think they understand the need for better community and law enforcement relationships, and I think they’re prepared to help us address this issue along those lines,” Costa said.

Wheatley added that while House Speaker Mike Turzai of Allegheny County was not receptive to calls for a special session on police reforms, “I’m hoping he’s interested in having a conversation.”

“We also haven’t directly heard from him,” Wheatley said, “but we heard through the grapevine that he’s been telling people there have been no bills to deal with this issue, so now we’re putting bills in front of him in the chamber so he can deal with this issue if he so chooses.”

Neal Lesher, a spokesperson for Turzai, said via email, “Clearly what Rep. Wheatley heard through the grapevine is correct if they are introducing the bills today. We have not seen the legislation yet. Once the bills are introduced, they will be assigned to the appropriate committee for review and discussion. As a committee Chairman himself, I know Rep. Wheatley understands the legislative process. I’m sure that he simply misspoke and did not mean to mislead the public into believing that the Speaker has the sole authority to consider and pass legislation.”

He added that House leadership expects “to work on legislation to protect victims of child sexual abuse and finish some other public safety and government reform bills” this fall.