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HARRISBURG — State House Democrats on Monday took control of the chamber in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and refused to allow a voting session to begin, imploring Republicans to consider a host of police reform bills in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and widespread protests.
“For 13 days, folks have been protesting in the streets, demanding that we actually do something,” State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D., Phila.) said in an impassioned speech, echoing other black lawmakers calling on Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) to take action. “Now we are here demanding that you actually do something.”
For years, Democrats have attempted to move police-related legislation, but have gotten nowhere in the face of a Republican majority that controls the agenda. Last week, Democrats renewed the effort, unveiling a plan that would, among other things, outlaw the choke hold, require mandatory drug testing after a police shooting, eliminate making an arrest as a justification for deadly force, and create a confidential police disciplinary database to avoid the rehiring of problem officers.
“You should come up from your seats, come up here and demand that we don’t get to business as usual,” Kenyatta told his white colleagues. “That we don’t get the same speeches and lip service. We demand that we get meaningful police reform passed out of the Pennsylvania House. It’s the people’s house, and if we aren’t doing the people’s business, then we aren’t doing business.”
Black House Democrats held the chamber for more than an hour, at one point asking fellow lawmakers to join them in kneeling and observing 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence, marking the amount of time a Minneapolis police officer held his knee against Floyd’s neck. Not all Republicans, however, were receptive of the Democrats’ tactics.
“This is a direct violation of House rules,” State Rep. Aaron Bernstine (R., Lawrence) said in a Facebook video. “They are standing in the way of allowing the speaker to go up and put us into session.”
He added, “This guy is screaming like a madman,” panning the camera to Kenyatta, who was in the middle of a passionate speech recalling the injustices black Americans have faced.
Republican leadership in the House and Senate have yet to commit to any specific reforms.
Turzai said he would write to Gov. Tom Wolf requesting a special session to consider police reform measures. That would give the governor and Democrats a dedicated forum to discuss the issues, but could also allow Turzai to delay any action for months. Bills heard in the session would still need Republican support to pass.
A spokesperson for House Republicans said a special session would allow the 19 proposed police reform bills to “receive some level [of] consideration.”
“We want to find an appropriate manner in which to offer up legislative solutions,” Turzai said in the House after the Democratic takeover. “You’ve taken it upon yourselves … to actually provide tangible solutions, and we need to take a serious look at those.”
In the Senate, Republicans announced a joint hearing next week to be held by the Judiciary and Law and Justice Committees to “examine and develop legislative proposals for addressing law enforcement and criminal justice accountability reforms.”
“We do not want to simply run legislation so we can pat ourselves on the back, nor do we want to stick our head in the sand,” State Sen. Patrick Stefano (R., Fayette) said in a statement. “Rather, we want to engage in a thoughtful process. That means gathering information by bringing all sides together. It’s an emotional and personal issue. We need to gather the evidence to take us from a thoughtful process to thoughtful legislation.”
A number of police reform bills have been pending consideration by the Law and Justice Committee, led by Stefano, but he has yet to take any of them up in this legislative session.
Last week, Wolf announced he will appoint a watchdog and create a commission to investigate alleged misconduct by the Pennsylvania State Police and other law enforcement agencies under his purview. But, Wolf noted, substantive change will have to come from the General Assembly.
State Sen. Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) said last week he is used to seeing reform bills wither in committee, though he’s hopeful the recent protests will draw new attention “to the need for this legislation.”
“These incidents occur, and then we protest. Then we talk about it, and then time passes and it is ignored,” Costa said. “We need to break that cycle, and we need to make sure these conversations take place.”
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