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Could this state commission help weed out bad cops?

The state Municipal Police Officers' Education and Training Commission can revoke the license of officers convicted of certain crimes or deemed unfit for duty. Some lawmakers want to make it stronger.

Demonstrators protesting the fatal police shooting of Antwon Rose II march across Pittsburgh's Roberto Clemente Bridge in June 2018. The death of Rose, who was unarmed as he fled during a traffic stop, sparked calls for increased police accountability.
Demonstrators protesting the fatal police shooting of Antwon Rose II march across Pittsburgh's Roberto Clemente Bridge in June 2018. The death of Rose, who was unarmed as he fled during a traffic stop, sparked calls for increased police accountability.Read moreGene J. Puskar / AP File

When Michael Rosfeld, a rookie East Pittsburgh police officer, shot and killed an unarmed teenager named Antwon Rose II in June 2018, some Pennsylvania lawmakers started kicking around the idea of improving training and hiring standards for cops across the state.

Several months before Rosfeld was hired in East Pittsburgh, he’d resigned from a university policing job after being notified that he was going to be fired. That a troubled cop could so easily get another law enforcement job — and then take someone’s life — seemed to make the case that the state needed to have a better way of regulating its police forces, which number more than 1,000.

There was a catch, though: Pennsylvania already had an organization to do the job. The Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission (MPOETC), created in 1974, provides a standardized certification process for aspiring cops as well as a way to kick out certain bad officers.

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The commission has gone about its work so quietly that it is rarely mentioned in conversations about police accountability, a topic that remains a potent issue for presidential candidates and such local officials as Mayor Jim Kenney and District Attorney Larry Krasner, both of whom were elected on platforms that promised criminal justice reform.

MPOETC is more than just an item on a cadet’s to-do list; the commission has the power to revoke an officer’s license. But it takes that step only in rare circumstances: if a cop has been convicted of a felony or a serious misdemeanor, or is deemed physically or mentally unfit for duty. As a result, in a state with more than 27,000 law enforcement officers, MPOETC has revoked licenses from only 35 cops since 2015 — with just a single revocation in all of 2016.

But in states like Kansas and Oregon — both of which have fewer than 8,000 cops — similar commissions strip licenses from dozens of problem officers every year, even if they have committed misconduct that doesn’t result in a criminal conviction.

“I wouldn’t say the problem is the agency itself. It’s that the agency’s powers seem quite limited,” said Roger Goldman, an emeritus professor at St. Louis University School of Law, and an expert on police license revocation laws. “And that’s something that does need legislative attention.”

An MPOETC with expanded powers might be welcomed by police officials in Philadelphia, where commissioners have complained for decades that arbitrators routinely overturn their firings, and put bad cops back on the force. But could any bill aimed at creating stricter oversight of police gain bipartisan traction in an era of fiercely divided political loyalties?

‘Trying to professionalize law enforcement’

Gary Steed calls Kansas “LEO” land — in other words, a predominantly white, Republican state where “law enforcement officers” enjoy plenty of support. Yet Kansas has gotten particularly adept in recent years at yanking licenses away from police officers who run afoul of the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training, where Stead serves as executive director.

Steed, a former sheriff of Sedgwick County, which includes Wichita, said Kansas’ ability to discipline police officers was limited for years to a handful of scenarios: felony convictions, or loosely defined “moral character” violations.

Then in 2012, Kansas lawmakers added 58 misdemeanor charges that could also result in cops losing their licenses, even if the evidence didn’t climb to the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard required for a criminal conviction. Revocations climbed.

“We went from doing about eight a year,” Steed said, “to probably about 40.”

The newly added charges include offenses that appeared in 170 Philadelphia police arbitration files The Inquirer obtained earlier this year: stalking, assault, and violation of a protection-from-abuse order.

Another crucial difference between Kansas and Pennsylvania: Thanks to funding it receives through court fees, the Kansas commission employs investigators who examine allegations of misconduct, separate from local police departments. The investigators present their evidence to a three-person panel that decides the appropriate discipline.

MPOETC has 15 board members — including Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Robert Evanchick, former State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, and Chris Werner, a longtime Philadelphia police chief inspector — but doesn’t conduct its own investigations.

Stead said the response to the Kansas commission’s work has been largely positive. “We continuously get comments from officers and chiefs and agency heads that they’re glad we’re doing what we do. We’re trying to professionalize law enforcement in Kansas.”

Rizzo’s ghost

Philadelphia officials recoiled at the idea of outside oversight for its police force from the very beginning.

In 1974, with the country still reeling from Watergate and years of violent clashes between protesters and police, Democrats and Republicans in Pennsylvania hashed out amendments to the bill that would create MPOETC.

Then, that spring, the Pennsylvania Crime Commission released a landmark report on the Philadelphia Police Department, which found corruption was “ongoing, widespread, systematic and occurring at all levels of the police department.”

Yet as the bill for MPOETC got closer to a final vote, some politicians were disturbed to find that Philly cops wouldn’t have to go through the commission’s certification process.

“It was the mayor of the city of Philadelphia, along with his legislative aide and others, who coerced the Senate into taking Philadelphia out,” then-State Rep. David Richardson complained during a June 1974 House session, a reference to then-Mayor Frank Rizzo, according to legislative records.

Richardson implored his fellow members of the House to support an amendment to reverse the Rizzo-directed change.

By a vote of 152-28, they rejected Richardson’s plea.

But Richardson’s desire for Philadelphia to become subject to MPOETC’s standards ultimately came to fruition — in 1984.

‘Why are we not looking at this?’

Other states offer different lessons on how to improve the quality of the men and women who end up carrying guns and badges.

In Colorado, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle helped to pass a bill in 2016 that requires police departments to share personnel records — and any Internal Affairs files — that pertain to officers who try to move from one law enforcement agency to another. The effort came in response to reporting by the Denver Post on officers who hopped from one department to another, despite histories of misconduct.

In Connecticut, the Police Officer Standards and Training Council keeps track of officers who have been fired or resigned because of misconduct, and forbids other departments from hiring anyone on its list.

Some experts think Pennsylvania officials should consider the nuclear option: replacing Act 111, the 1968 state law that requires disputes between government agencies and unions to be resolved through binding arbitration.

Such a suggestion might be greeted with howling disapproval locally, but to Chris Burbank, a former chief of the Salt Lake City Police Department, it‘s an obvious solution.

“Laws are changed across this country all the time,” he said. “Why are we not looking at this? Because it’s hard?”

Burbank, now a vice president at the Center for Policing Equity, a think tank at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said governments should consider moving away from the civil-service and unionized workforce model for law enforcement and seek more educated, diverse, and experienced employees. He said bad cops who remain on the force through arbitration “poison” entire departments and fuel community mistrust.

“This goes to the credibility of police across the nation,” Burbank said. “As administrators and overseers of police departments, we should move away from this binding-arbitration nonsense. We’re looking for people who make life-and-death decisions on behalf of the government. We need to start changing. I hate the notion that ‘We can’t do anything.’ ”

Kenney offers a note of caution: With no Act 111, “they’d have the right to strike, and none of us want that.”

Deputy City Solicitor Cara Leheny, who handles police arbitration cases for the city, said the city could try to limit the power of arbitrators by implementing a stricter disciplinary code with more specific punishments, such as automatic dismissal for certain offenses. But past attempts at curbing arbitrators’ discretion hasn’t gone well for the city.

In 2008, as part of negotiations over a new police contract, then-Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration proposed limiting an arbitrator’s ability to reduce discipline in cases where the arbitrator found a cop to have been guilty of misconduct.

The proposal went before a panel of arbitrators who were in charge of setting the terms of the new contract. They didn’t grant the city’s request.

Mixed appetite for change

Antwon Rose’s death in East Pittsburgh resulted in something rarely seen in Pennsylvania: a police officer charged with first-degree murder.

But any hope Rose’s family held of seeing Michael Rosfeld go to prison for shooting the teen evaporated earlier this year, when a jury found the ex-cop not guilty. Several Democratic lawmakers sensed an opening for legislation that would prevent future Rose-like tragedies.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa and State Rep. Jake Wheatley said they will introduce legislation to beef up the police certification and training, not only for municipal officers, but also for state police, sheriff’s deputies, and correctional officers.

Rep. Chris Rabb, of Philadelphia, has introduced a bill that would allow law enforcement agencies to access a statewide database of police misconduct. Rabb believes it would prevent problem cops from easily moving from one department to another.

“No police officer wants to share a squad car with someone dirty," he said. "The worst thing for a good cop is a bad cop. This is actually a piece of legislation that should draw widespread support. I would love it if the FOP supported it. I don’t anticipate that happening.”

Republicans, who control both chambers of the state legislature, have largely shied away from taking public stances on new legislation pertaining to police. “Most of our members believe hiring and internal management practices are best left to the people in our communities who choose to protect us,” Mike Straub, a spokesperson for House Republicans, said.

The prospect of expanding MPOETC’s powers or creating a new agency to address police accountability gets an automatic thumbs-down from John McNesby, the president of Philadelphia’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5.

“I don’t believe that’ll happen,” he said.

Liz Navratil is a staff writer with Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Inquirer in partnership with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and PennLive/Patriot-News.