Wilkinsburg — July 17, 2018 – A joint state Senate-House Democratic Policy Committee hearing was held today in Wilkinsburg to focus on proposals aimed at improving community-police relations.
Held locally at the request of Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa and Rep. Ed Gainey, the hearing was aimed at finding ways to boost training opportunities and enhance community-police relations.
“It is imperative that we seek ways to improve the trust, communication and mutual respect between police officers and the communities they serve,” Costa said. “Part of that equation is the need to bolster police training, accountability and provide greater public oversight.”
Gainey added, “Mandating diversity training and helping the police understand and deal with the unique challenges in urban communities would also help reduce unwarranted police shootings.”
The hearing was scheduled following the tragic shooting death of Antwon Rose II, who died while fleeing from East Pittsburgh police. The officer involved in the shooting has since been charged with criminal homicide.
“We need to find ways to improve the level of trust and cooperation between police officers and citizens,” stated Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton), who chairs the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, but was unable to attend “While any initiative to improve professionalism, responsiveness and communication between police and citizens is a good and necessary step, we should not lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of police officers are dedicated public servants who risk their lives to defend citizens.”
House Democratic Policy Committee Chair Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster) said, “I represent the City of Lancaster, which recently had alleged police aggression incidents occur during arrests. It is imperative that everyone listen to all sides and work together to ensure a respectful community.”
Wilkinsburg Police Chief Ophelia Coleman said it is imperative for police departments to step up training, upgrade policies and weed out unsuitable officers.
“Giving a liar and cheat the power and authority as a police officer gives you a liar and cheat with a badge and gun,” Coleman said. “When departments find people like this we need to get rid of them – cut the cancer out.”
Forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht noted that police collegiality is fine, but not when it becomes an “us against them” mentality. He suggested several ways to improve training, professionalism, community interaction and oversight.
La’Tasha Mayes, executive director of New Voices for Reproductive Justice, suggested that people of color be better represented in police departments, that incidents of misconduct be made available to the community and that cultural awareness be an integral part of training. She noted that African-Americans are three times more likely to be killed by the police.
The joint hearing was used to discuss numerous and varying proposals aimed at law enforcement hiring practices, use of deadly force, public oversight and resource sharing.
Costa is working with stakeholders on all sides of the issue to craft legislation that will:
- Create specialized units to respond to crisis situations and to provide immediate access to counseling services for police and community members;
- Develop a statewide database to provide municipalities with more extensive background information when hiring police officers. The database would include disciplinary actions and misconduct;
- Require the state Municipal Police Officers Education and Training Commission (MPOETC) to develop a uniform policy on the use of force for all police departments and require more extensive and standardized training for police officers; and
- Create a bipartisan legislative caucus on cultural awareness in policing to study police incidents and make recommendations on improving community-police relations.
Representatives Gainey, Austin Davis and Jake Wheatley (all D-Allegheny) and Jordan Harris (D-Phila.) are working to introduce legislation that would:
- Establish a state licensing commission for police officers that could independently act against officers for misconduct;
- Establish a background check system for police officers — similar to laws that apply to teachers — so that any employment incidents or transgressions can be shared with potential employers; and
- Create a bipartisan legislative caucus to bring policymakers together to offer ideas and best practices from across the state; and
The following individuals testified at the hearing:
- Allegheny County Police Superintendent Coleman J. McDonough;
- Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert;
- Sgt. William Slaton, commander, state police Equality and Inclusion Office;
- Chad Dion Lassiter, executive director, state Human Relations Commission;
- Elizabeth Randol, legislative director, ACLU of Pennsylvania;
- American Civil Liberty Union Legislative Director Elizabeth Randol;
- Dr. Cyril Wecht, forensic pathologist and medical-legal consultant;
- Wilkinsburg Borough Police Chief Ophelia Coleman;
- La’Tasha Mayes, executive director, New Voices for Reproductive Justice; and
- Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director, Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board.
The following senators attended the hearing: Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D-Forest Hills), Jim Brewster (D-McKeesport), Wayne Fontana (D-Brookline), Art Haywood (D-Phila.) and Sharif Street (D-Phila.).
The following House lawmakers attended: Ed Gainey (D-Wilkinsburg), Austin Davis (D-Allegheny), Tony Deluca (D-Allegheny), Dan Miller (D-Allegheny), Dom Costa (D-Allegheny), Adam Ravenstahl (D-Allegheny), Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny), Jake Wheatley (D-Allegheny), Stephen Kinsey (D-Phila.) Jordan Harris (D-Phila.), Kevin Boyle (D-Phila.), Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster), Pat Harkins (D-Erie), Chris Sainato (D-Lawrence), and Frank Burns (D-Cambria).
A video of the joint legislative hearing is available below: