What would better police oversight look like in Pennsylvania?

Lawmakers from Allegheny County are considering the question following Antwon Rose II’s death.

A person holds a sign at a protest in Downtown Pittsburgh after the death of Antwon Rose 11.

A person holds a sign at a protest in Downtown Pittsburgh after the death of Antwon Rose 11.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline
Sarah Anne Hughes

HARRISBURG — The death of Antwon Rose II at the hands of an East Pittsburgh police officer has some state lawmakers taking a hard look at law enforcement oversight in the commonwealth.

Michael Rosfeld, the officer charged in Rose’s death, was new to East Pittsburgh, but had previously served at other municipal departments in Allegheny County. There are hundreds of these departments throughout Pennsylvania, many of which depend primarily on part-time officers.

The Municipal Police Officers’ Education & Training Commission (MPOETC) oversees training standards for these departments and issues certification to officers. The commission can revoke certification for a handful of reasons including convictions for certain crimes.

But that rarely happens in Pennsylvania — just 13 times in 2017, the vast majority for criminal convictions.

Following Rose’s death, The Incline put out a call for questions about policing. One reader wanted to know:

“What kind of external police accountability / oversight exists in the state, and what kind of power do they have?”

Beyond the certification process, there’s very little external oversight for police in Pennsylvania.

Where civilians have oversight

There are civilian police oversight boards in just two Pennsylvania cities: Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh’s Citizen Police Review Board investigates allegations of misconduct against the city’s officers. The board has the power to issue subpoenas, conduct hearings, and make non-binding recommendations to the mayor and chief of police. In the past, city officials were hostile to the CPRB, but experts say that’s shifted under Mayor Bill Peduto.

In 2017, the review board received 290 complaints that contained more than 600 allegations. CPRB used its subpoena power in more than one case to compel officers to appear and testify.

Philly’s Police Advisory Commission doesn’t investigate individual police officers. Rather, it focuses on big-picture issues like operation changes that could be made in the wake of the controversial arrest of two black men at a Starbucks.

Allegheny County is considering the creation of a citizens review board for its own police department, which covers county property like parks and the airport, but has run into opposition from the Police Association, which has argued that there’s enough existing oversight.

Even those involved with civilian oversight are realistic about its limitations.

Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of Pittsburgh’s civilian board, said a county-wide board to oversee more than 100 municipal departments wouldn’t be feasible. Rather, it’s the role of the General Assembly, she said, to create an accountability structure for law enforcement and ensure small departments adhere to best practices.

“What will be tolerated in terms of law enforcement in those communities?” she said. “That goes back to the state legislature.”

How certification can work as oversight

In the absence of external review boards across the state, officer certification can serve as a type of oversight.

However, only municipal officers are certified in Pennsylvania, by a board overseen by the State Police. That’s one of the flaws with Pennsylvania’s current system, according to Roger Goldman, professor emeritus at Saint Louis University School of Law.

Goldman, who has spent the past 40 years studying police certification, said a model program includes minimum training standards and continuing education.

MPOETC requires both and certifies officers after they complete training at an approved academy and pass an exam.

Just as important as certification is the power to revoke it. When Goldman started in the field, a third of U.S. states didn’t have the power to revoke certifications. Now all but four do, he said.

In Pennsylvania, MPOETC is able to revoke an officer’s certification for reasons including:

  • Failure to maintain employment as a police officer under the act
  • Failure to maintain first aid or CPR certification
  • Failure to successfully complete annual mandatory in-service training
  • Physical or psychological impairment which renders the officer permanently unable to perform his duties
  • Conviction for a disqualifying criminal offense, defined as one “for which more than 1 year in prison can be imposed as punishment”

MPOETC revoked 13 officers’ certifications in 2017, 11 for conviction of crimes ranging from sexual abuse to possessing illegal guns.

NamePolice DepartmentRevocation DateHire End DateReason for Revocation
Ray M. Corll
Lancaster City PD9/14/20173/30/2017Conviction; failure to maintain employment as a police officer
Daniel J. Ervin
Collingdale Boro PD12/7/20171/15/2016Conviction; submission to the Commission a document that contains false information
Francis P. Johnson
Emporium Boro PD9/14/20173/1/2016Conviction
Robert L. Kelly
Masontown Boro PD; Fayette County Bureau of Investigation6/15/201710/22/2013Conviction
Stephen C. Krum
Harrisburg PD9/14/20174/4/2016Conviction
Joseph C. Lewis
Easttown Township PD; Philadelphia3/16/201710/24/2016Conviction
Michael D. Long
Connellsville City PD12/7/20172/26/2010Conviction; failure to maintain employment as a police officer
Jeffrey D. Phillips
Mercersburg Boro PD3/16/20175/23/2011Falsified information on MPOETC application; failure to maintain employment as a police officer
Efrain Quinonez
Lewistown Boro PD6/15/20178/1/2016Conviction; failure to maintain employment as a police officer
Melissa M. Ruch
West Penn Twp PD9/14/201710/3/2016Conviction; failure to maintain employment as a police officer
Chad G. Thomas
Mahoning Township PD3/16/20175/16/2016Failure to maintain employment as a police officer
Roosevelt Turner
Chester City PD3/16/20173/31/2017Conviction; failure to maintain employment as a police officer
Michael J. Winkler
Philadelphia City PD9/14/20177/24/2016Conviction for a disqualifying criminal offense and failure to maintain employment as a police officer under the Act

That number pales in comparison to states like Georgia and Missouri, which revoke dozens of certifications a year, according to Goldman.

In 2015, Pennsylvania revoked just two certifications from municipal police officers, according to a survey conducted by the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training. Compare that to Georgia’s 562 for law enforcement, corrections, and other officers or Florida’s 399 that year.

He called Pennsylvania’s decertification “extremely limited.” For one, it only applies to municipal officers. Secondly, it’s up to the officer’s department to notify the commission of a violation.

“MPOETC doesn’t step in for departmental disciplinary issues,” a state police spokesperson told The Incline earlier this year.

What could change

Just days after Rose’s death, state representatives from Allegheny County were calling for changes. Pittsburgh Democrat Rep. Jake Wheatley expressed dismay that there’s a licensing board for barbers in Pennsylvania, but not for police.

Wheatley plans to introduce legislation that would create a “professional licensing board” for police officers, according to a co-sponsorship memo:

In addition to licensing police officers, this board will provide the public with another venue for complaints and concerns. As other boards do, this entity will have investigation and prosecutorial jurisdiction over its licensees. The board will also be solely vested with authority to investigate all use of deadly force by police in the commonwealth.

State Sen. Jay Costa, a Democrat from Allegheny County, plans to introduce similar legislation that would create a State Board of Peace Officer Oversight. The board would have 14 members including three police officers, three members of the public, and two attorneys.

Both bills would cover all police officers in Pennsylvania, not just ones at municipal departments. That would go a long way toward fixing what Goldman identified as one of the biggest problems with the current system. The legislation would be even better if it included corrections officers, Goldman said.

He also cautioned that lawmakers shouldn’t get too hung up on the semantics of certification versus licensure, since they operate in essentially the same way.

Any changes would come next year at the earliest, when a new session begins in the General Assembly.