PA's Legislative Black Caucus Wants To Improve Police, Community Relations

Apr 17, 2019

The state House’s Legislative Black Caucus is looking to change some of the laws governing Pennsylvania’s police officers. 

It’s an effort that members say would hopefully ease the tensions that often exist between law enforcement and lower-income communities—particularly ones of color.

Allegheny County Democrat Summer Lee said she was galvanized by the death of an unarmed black teenager in her East Pittsburgh district last year.

Seventeen-year-old Antwon Rose was shot in the back by an officer after fleeing a traffic stop. The officer was charged, but a jury acquitted him.

Lee, a first-year representative, said she is planning a bill that would clarify how “deadly force” is defined for police, and when it is justified.

“We recognize that policing is a dangerous field,” she said. “It is complicated, and often they have to make life or death decisions in the blink of an eye. We don’t envy that, and we understand how important it is that our communities are protected.”

“But,” she continued, “we also understand that as often as we can, we need to preserve life.”

Lee’s proposal, which she plans to make in conjunction with fellow Allegheny County Democrat Ed Gainey, is one of several the Black Caucus and allies hope to move this session.

Another would require special prosecutors to investigate deadly force incidents instead of district attorneys.

Philadelphia Democrat Brian Sims is sponsoring that bill, which he has also introduced in previous sessions.

“I’ve seen data that indicates that when a police officer is investigated by their own district attorney, the odds of them being found guilty of a crime are slim to none,” he said.

Other proposed bills would prohibit arbitration during police disciplinary proceedings, make sure complaints against officers are available to precincts during hiring processes, and create new statewide training standards.

Jordan Harris, a Philadelphia Democrat who also serves as minority whip, said the over-arching goal is to make sure bias—racial or otherwise—doesn’t bleed into police work.

“Justice isn’t blind, and we know that,” he said. “I’m ok with justice not being blind. I don’t mind justice seeing me. I just want to have the same justice that anyone else would have in any other community.”

The measures are in their infancy.

They haven’t yet been formally introduced. There also aren’t any Republicans on board, though caucus members said they are hoping to work across the aisle.

A spokeswoman for the Fraternal Order of Police, which generally plays a significant role in legislation related to law enforcement, said in a statement that the group was reviewing the LBC’s proposals.

She said they are “in the process of vetting all potential improvements and solutions, including additional training and regionalization.”