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Democratic legislators seek support for changes in police use-of-force laws

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
APR 29, 2019 6:45 AM

Cries for changes to longstanding laws that govern policing are expected to take more concrete form Tuesday as Democratic state lawmakers finalize proposed new laws and activists try to rally support.

Members of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus are pushing five bills that aim to improve relations between police and the communities they serve, and clarify language in laws that govern the way police use deadly force and are held accountable for it.

Tensions in Pittsburgh have been high since the shooting death of 17-year-old Antwon Rose II by Michael Rosfeld, a former East Pittsburgh police officer, in June 2018, and this prompted protests that erupted last summer and after Mr. Rosfeld’s acquittal on March 22.

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus have planned a rally and lobbying day in support of the police bills starting at noon on Tuesday in the rotunda of the Capitol in Harrisburg. Co-sponsorship memos detailing the bills will be made public that day, Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, said.

Rep. Summer Lee, D-Swissvale, said community members and especially youth expressed pain and a desire for change in police laws following the Rosfeld verdict. Some student activists, as well as legislators, community members and allies will be among those present at the rally, she said.

“Kids want to be a part of the legislative conscious,” said Ms. Lee, who marched with various protesters the day the Rosfeld verdict came out. “There’s a time for protesting and a time for advocacy.”

Mr. Rosfeld was accused of criminal homicide in the shooting of Antwon during a felony traffic stop on Grandview Avenue in East Pittsburgh. A major point of contention between police and some local community members is the state law that protected Mr. Rosfeld’s choice to shoot Antwon three times in the back as he fled the scene.

“As long as we have police who have guns, a license to kill and a badge, we want to be sure they have the utmost training and follow the highest quality standards,” Ms. Lee said. “Policing is a dangerous job; we don’t diminish that. What we want to say is that there is a different way to do policing.”

Democratic lawmakers announced the bills last week in Harrisburg during a news conference headed by Rep. Stephen Kinsey, D-Philadelphia, and the chairman of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus. Ms. Lee said the proposals have not yet been presented to the Republican-led House, and the bills are still being written.

The five emerging bills would modify definitions in statutes for the use of deadly force; reform interdepartmental police hiring by requiring that law enforcement agencies keep detailed personnel records on an officer leaving a job; appoint a special prosecutor to investigate any incident of deadly force involving a law enforcement officer; reform the certification and decertification process for police officers; and address arbitration regarding matters of discipline for police.

The involved lawmakers have yet to provide specifics on how current use-of-force laws should be changed, but Ms. Lee said it’s important to evaluate the language in current laws and clarify how officers judge whether a person is an imminent threat.

“This means officers should be sure they are facing deadly force before they use it,” she said.

Expectations have to be reasonable, said Beth Pittinger, executive director of Pittsburgh’s Citizen Police Review Board.

“We have to remember that we cannot expect a cop to commit suicide before they use deadly force,” Ms. Pittinger said. “I know that’s a controversial statement. Police should have a sense of accountability, though, because courts base decisions on a reasonable officer’s perspective.”

Ms. Lee, who is also treasurer of the Black Caucus, said the push for reform “isn’t anti-police.”

Rep. Austin Davis, D-McKeesport, who also is a member of the Black Caucus, said the caucus is open to ideas on making the package better.

“Right now the law is ambiguous,” Mr. Davis said. “It is not clear when you can use deadly force.”

Current Pennsylvania law states, in part, that a police officer “need not retreat or desist from efforts to make a lawful arrest because of resistance or threatened resistance to the arrest. He is justified in the use of any force which he believes to be necessary to effect the arrest, and of any force which he believes to be necessary to defend himself or another from bodily harm while making the arrest.”

Proposed police conduct bills died last year at the end of a two-year session before they could reach a House vote, Mr. Davis said, because they were “never brought up.” In September 2018, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, along with Reps. Ed Gainey, D-Lincoln-Lemington; Dan Miller, D-Mt. Lebanon; Mr. Davis and Mr. Wheatley, announced plans to introduce the package on policing.

“This is the perfect time to reintroduce those bills,” Ms. Lee said. “This is not a partisan issue, so we’re also seeking support from police. This is a collaborative issue, and this isn’t just a Pittsburgh issue.”

Mike Straub, a spokesman for House Republicans, said it’s too early to gauge the amount of support Republicans will provide for the proposed bills.

“I’m confident there are members on both sides of the aisle who will offer their input to those ideas,” Mr. Straub said. “We have 110 Republicans, so I can’t say who met about what, but there might be some [Republican] members who are waiting [to see the final proposal].”

Robert Swartzwelder, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, said current police laws are in place for a reason.

He said he respects members of the Black Caucus and is open to “do whatever I can to help those guys.” But adding more subjectivity to the equation can be dangerous, he said.

“I analyze everything from the position of legal standard,” he said. “Soon as we go away from that, we need to ask, ‘Well, whose standard do we adopt?’”

Ms. Pittinger noted that officers are certified under the Municipal Police Officers Education and Training Commission, which is administered under the state police. She believes that officers instead should be reviewed under the Pennsylvania Bureau of Professional & Occupational Affairs, just as people in other professions.

“It would reinforce that policing is a profession, which means it normalizes the professional conduct of these folks,” she said.

The emerging proposals are a long way from becoming law.

Mr. Straub said that when the proposals are finalized, they have to pass committee votes. It’s then up to the House majority, the Republicans, to choose what gets considered by the full chamber. If a bill passes House and Senate votes, the governor can then either sign it into law or veto it. If he does nothing at all, the legislation will automatically become law in 10 days, Mr. Straub said.

Ms. Lee said gaining support from the community is just as important as support from police and other legislators.

“If passed, this would save lives and set a blueprint that other states can follow,” she said. “We’re not the first state to deal with police brutality, or losing lives, but we can be the first state to prioritize safety, professionalism and life.”

Lacretia Wimbley: 412-263-1510, or follow @Wimbleyjourno on Twitter.

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