Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and PennLive/Patriot-News. Sign up for our free weekly newsletter.
HARRISBURG — With bipartisan support, Pennsylvania lawmakers advanced two long-awaited police oversight reforms Monday, including a bill that would create a confidential misconduct database for officer background checks.
Democrats hailed the move as a first step after seeing similar legislation languish for months or even years without consideration in the GOP-controlled legislature.
One bill, sponsored by Rep. Harry Readshaw (D., Allegheny), would require all law enforcement agencies in the state to consult a new database with information on disciplinary actions, performance evaluations, and attendance records during a background check.
The legislation would also require an agency to disclose information about any investigations into current or former officers in writing. The effort, however, stops short of making misconduct records available to the public, a move recently taken in New York and New Jersey.
The other bill advanced Monday would create new types of training, mandate yearly use-of-force instruction, and require mental-health screenings after officers use deadly force.
The House Judiciary Committee considered the bills one week after black Democrats took control of the chamber to demand Republicans consider a host of reforms in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and widespread protests.
Gov. Tom Wolf endorsed the database legislation, as did Attorney General Josh Shapiro and the heads of powerful police unions for the state and Philadelphia.
The bills now move to the full House, which could consider them as early as next week, according to Mike Straub, a spokesperson for the House Republicans.
“I feel like an honorary Republican today,” said Rep. Chris Rabb (D., Phila.), whose own long-languishing database legislation was amended into Readshaw’s bill Monday. “Accomplishments like this don’t happen by accident or by one person… It was also supported by Republicans who allowed these bills, as amended, to come to a vote.”
Rep. Summer Lee (D., Allegheny) said she was surprised to see a Democratic bill taken up in committee and said she was excited to hear the panel’s chair, Rep. Rob Kauffman (R., Franklin), say Democrats should flag urgent bills they think should be considered. Lee said she looks forward to bringing more than a dozen bills to the chair’s attention.
“After a year we were finally able to get something that is a starting point we can build on,” Lee said.
House and Senate Democrats last unveiled a package of reform bills in 2018, after a police officer shot and killed Antwon Rose II, an unarmed black teenager, in a small borough outside Pittsburgh. But the legislation, including a bill from Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) to create a disciplinary database and require additional training and mental-health screenings for officers, languished in committees without a hearing.
“Unfortunately, we can’t get the leadership there to move the bill,” Costa previously told Spotlight PA. “It is my hope that in light of the protests, these folks will recognize that these are important, reasonable, and responsible measures. It is just training and maintaining information.”
The action Monday represents a major shift for Pennsylvania, which has in recent years advanced bills that protect law enforcement from increased scrutiny, said Andy Hoover, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania ACLU. That includes a measure, passed with bipartisan support but vetoed by Wolf, that would have withheld from the public the names of officers who use deadly force.
Still, the state is far behind its neighbors New York and New Jersey, which are both taking steps to make misconduct information at least partially available to the public. The bill advanced Monday here would make the disciplinary database available to police departments, not the public.
The committee on Monday also unanimously approved a measure that would require police training on how to recognize and report suspected child abuse. It was amended to include training for municipal police officers on how to treat people of diverse backgrounds and require annual in-service training on use of force and de-escalation techniques.
Pennsylvania has increased mandatory training for officers in the past, including how to interact with someone who appears to have a mental health condition or intellectual disabilities.
But more training doesn’t necessarily mean better outcomes. Hoover, of the ACLU, referenced the death of Osaze Osagie, a 29-year-old black man with chronic mental illness who was shot and killed by State College police in 2019.
"The officers had what is considered the gold standard of police training on [mental health] crisis intervention. And still they killed him, with no [mental health] professional on the scene,” Hoover said. “In that case, at least, more training failed to save Osaze’s life.”
House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), who resigned Monday to pursue a job in the private sector, called the committee’s vote an “important step in moving the issues of criminal justice reform and police reform forward.”
“These reforms help our police better perform their very challenging and difficult responsibilities," he said in a statement.
Turzai said he supported calls from Black lawmakers to schedule a special session to consider police reform bills. Wolf in turn requested the General Assembly pass a resolution showing support for such an effort, which has not occurred. In Pennsylvania, the governor can call a special session unilaterally or after being petitioned by a majority of the legislature.
On Monday, Wolf applauded the committee’s action but said he was still hesitant to call a special session because there is no guarantee substantive measures will be considered.
“I don’t think we need a special session. We need to pass bills,” he said. “The cons are, if the General Assembly really doesn’t want to do it … they can gavel in and gavel out without doing anything.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated how a special session is called in Pennsylvania.
100% ESSENTIAL: Spotlight PA relies on funding from foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results. If you value this reporting, please give a gift today at spotlightpa.org/donate.