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Cities See Protests Rage On As Wolf Vows Changes To Policing

Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
Demonstrators lay down near the Allegheny County Jail as part of a protest against police brutality on Thursday, June 4, 2020.

Large protests over police treatment of black people arose in Pittsburgh and Bethlehem on Thursday, while Philadelphia braced for more marches and demonstrations on the night before some pandemic-related restrictions will end in the city.

Marchers wove their way through Pittsburgh before they stopped for a “die-in,” when hundreds imitated dead bodies by laying down on a street outside the county jail.

A thousand or more people packed a downtown area in Bethlehem, chanting “black lives matter" and hearing speakers urge them to continue to push for change.

Protesters in Lebanon jeered when the police chief walked away from a large group that chanted for him to take a knee, then marched through the small city for hours.

The widespread demonstrations over the death of George Floyd, pinned down by a now-former police officer with a knee to his throat, were expected to occur again in Philadelphia as well.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said protests will continue as long as they need to.

“This has been a long time coming in this country,” said Kenney, a Democrat.

National Guard troops were again stationed outside government buildings downtown, and Kenney said he was glad for their presence. They have helped free police for pressing matters of law enforcement, he said.

A Pennsylvania National Guard spokesman said 2,500 guardsmen were activated under a disaster declaration by Gov. Tom Wolf five days ago. More than 2,000 are in the Philadelphia region.

“We’re going around trying to reassure people we’re doing our best, and that we care about them and want to keep them safe,” Kenney said as he toured a neighborhood with the police commissioner. He vowed to convene a group to address criminal justice improvements, focusing on reconciliation.

In Harrisburg, Wolf announced a plan to address police misconduct, including the designation of a new deputy inspector general and appointment of an advisory commission to address problems within the law enforcement operations under his jurisdiction.

The governor said he will direct police training academies to improve instruction about how force is used and how to interact with the people they protect.

Wolf also wants lawmakers to pass laws to provide better access to police videos, improve police training and authorize special prosecutors for cases of deadly assault.

Bills to improve police procedures, proposed after a Pittsburgh jury acquitted an officer of homicide last year in a black teenager’s death, have languished in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Several Pittsburgh-area Democratic state lawmakers pressed House GOP leaders on Thursday to advance proposals on deadly force and on investigations and punishment of police.

Floyd, a black man, was in handcuffs when a white police officer was caught on video pressing a knee into his neck even after he had stopped breathing. The now-fired officer, Derek Chauvin, faces a charge of second-degree murder, and three other officers are accused of aiding and abetting.

Philadelphia is about to see the easing of some of the restrictions that have locked down the city for months. The city and surrounding counties are expected to be moved Friday from the most restrictive “red” guidelines — including stay-at-home orders — to “yellow” rules under the state’s stoplight-colored reopening system.

In the yellow zone, many businesses can reopen and restaurants may offer takeout. But outdoor dining at restaurants will not be allowed, as is normally the case in yellow zones. Gatherings are limited to 25 people, and some personal care services, including hair care and gyms, are not allowed.

In Erie, the FBI accused Melquan Barnett, 28, with setting fire to a downtown coffee shop. Barnett, of Erie, was taken into custody Wednesday. His lawyer said he was misidentified and is not guilty.

In York, police investigated a report that one of their white colleagues reenacted the scene of Floyd's death at a party while off duty, The York Dispatch reported. A man who was reported to have played the role of Floyd while an officer imitated Chauvin, said no such reenactment took place.