Pennsylvania House Democrats Refocus on Police Reform, But Face an Uphill Fight
Democrats have introduced and reintroduced bills that have languished in the Judiciary Committee, which must approve them before they reach the full House.
Protests in Philadelphia and throughout Pennsylvania, in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, have sparked renewed interest in police reform among the state’s Democrats. But their bills remain stalled in the state legislature.
On May 28, Representative Brian Sims of Philadelphia recirculated a bill that he and fellow Democratic Representative Summer Lee, whose district includes parts of Pittsburgh, introduced more than a year ago that would require the Pennsylvania attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate when on-duty police kill someone.
“We’re calling for an indictment of this entire justice system, for this entire system of policing,” Lee told The Appeal.
Sims and Lee’s bill was one of 10 police reform bills introduced in the state House of Representatives after the acquittal in March 2019 of Michael Rosfeld, a white former East Pittsburgh police officer who was charged with criminal homicide for shooting Antwon Rose, a Black 17-year-old, in the back, killing him.
Those bills called for, among other things, the creation of an oversight board to certify and train police officers and a requirement that officers first attempt to de-escalate before using lethal force.
But all of the bills have languished in the House Judiciary Committee, which has been led since January 2019 by Republican Representative Rob Kauffman of Franklin County—a heavily Republican, rural area in south-central Pennsylvania.
As chairperson, Kauffman controls the movement of all bills in his committee. He alone decides which bills receive hearings and which come up for a vote. Without approval from the committee, it is difficult to bring a bill up for a vote in the full House.
Kauffman has held three public hearings, none of which has addressed police reform. The only relevant hearing held in recent years was coordinated by House Democrats and addressed police use of force. Representatives from the state Fraternal Order of Police, Pennsylvania State Police Troopers Association, and Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association were invited but did not attend.
Representative Chris Rabb, a Democrat from Philadelphia, introduced a bill in June 2019 that would require police departments to keep records on how an officer separates from a department and submit them to the state attorney general. Rabb’s bill would also require police departments to publicly disclose that they are planning to hire someone who has separated from a police department for substantiated claims or allegations of serious misconduct like use of excessive force, sexual assault, or coercing false confessions.
“Will [these bills] see the light of day? I don’t think they will this term,” Rabb told The Appeal. “Because the majority is controlled by Republicans who have turned a blind eye to racial justice.”
In December, Kauffman told reporters that he does not “see color” when it comes to criminal justice policy and that the term mass incarceration was “a new term” for him.
“I don’t discuss criminal reform in light of color,” Kauffman said. “I like to not get into that when I’m talking about public policy issues.”
Kauffman then appeared to imply racial disparities are not an issue in Franklin County, saying that the county jail is “populated by white people.”
Kauffman did not respond to The Appeal’s multiple requests for comment.
Black people are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system at nearly every level in Franklin County, Kauffman’s district.
Despite accounting for only about 3 percent of Franklin County’s population, Black people made up roughly 20 percent of the people who were charged with a crime in the county in 2018 and 2019, according to a review by The Appeal of more than 4,000 criminal charging dockets filed in magisterial district judge offices.
This disparity means Black adults in Franklin County were more than eight times more likely to be charged with a crime than their white counterparts.
The Appeal’s review found Black people were more likely to be charged with a felony, a decision largely made by police. Police in most counties in Pennsylvania can file criminal charges without consulting the district attorney’s office.
Judges are more likely to impose cash bail on Black people, and on average, cash bail was nearly 40 percent more for Black people than white people.
Bail bondsmen also collected an estimated $185,000 and $554,000 between 2018 and 2019 in fees from Black people. The estimate is based on a standard fee range of 5 to 15 percent of bonds issued by the for-profit companies, as Pennsylvania does not require bondsmen to provide state or local officials with any records for how much they collect in fees.
Black adults were also more likely to be sentenced to prison or jail for crimes sent to the trial court in 2018, the latest full year for which data is available. In April, Black people accounted for nearly 30 percent of the people being held in Franklin County Jail.
On Thursday, Governor Tom Wolf announced he would implement a handful of measures aimed at reforming policing. He said he would establish a police advisory commission to review allegations of misconduct by the Pennsylvania State Police, create a Racial and Ethnic Disparities Subcommittee within the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, and assist local municipalities that want to create their own police advisory commission, an independent board that investigates alleged police misconduct.
He will also adopt a recommendation from a working group of advocates and lawmakers, including Rabb, to create a deputy inspector general position to investigate waste, fraud, and abuse within the Pennsylvania State Police. The working group made several recommendations that lawmakers at all levels of government in Pennsylvania can implement including ending stop-and-frisk policing, creating an independent review process when an officer injures someone, and regularly having officers tested for post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I need to show that I’m listening,” Wolf said during a press conference Thursday. “All of us here in Harrisburg need to show that people are being heard. So, today, I am taking steps to address concerns about long-standing violence and oppression of Pennylvanians of color.”
But advocates say more needs to be done beyond simply changing current police practices; the state must scale back policing on society as a whole.
Grassroots and other advocacy groups in Philadelphia have called for funds allocated for police to be redistributed to other social programs. The City Council is weighing a proposed $14 million increase to the police department’s budget, which must be approved by June 30.
Robert Saleem Holbrook, director of community organizing for the Abolitionist Law Center, told The Appeal that the state needs substantial policing changes, including the abolition of police unions. He also called for “setting up community police control boards that have the power to fire police and removing the police commissioners from having authority over police disciplinary measures, ultimately developing alternatives to police departments.”
The Amistad Law Project has asked that the City Council redirect the additional money for police toward funding services like public libraries and the city recreation department. The proposed budget cuts roughly 20 percent from anti-violence programs, like youth mentorship, and the city’s independent police oversight board.
“Larger police budgets only lead to more officers which increases the political power of the police and their racist union, the Fraternal Order of Police,” Nikki Grant, Amistad’s policy director, told The Appeal. “We must invest that money into our communities so that people have access to healthy food, so that we all have internet access, so that young people have enriching programming, so that we can all have job training and meaningful work, and so every Philadelphian has a home.”
On Sunday, the Minneapolis City Council announced it planned to disband its police force. Although the move comes amid protest around Floyd’s death, Councilmember Steven Fletcher said the department has a “decades-long history of violence and discrimination.” After disbanding the police force, the council said it intends to invest in community-led public safety.
“It’s so important to understand this is not the culmination of one Black man dying while having a police officer with his knee on his neck for eight minutes,” Lee, the Pittsburgh-area representative, said. “No, what we’re really fighting about are those systemic, deep-rooted issues, that racism and bias that’s been endemic in this system since the beginning.”