State lawmakers turned their attention toward policing reforms this week with two bills that should hit the floor of the House next week.
(The Center Square) – A Pennsylvania House panel approved two bills to increase law enforcement training and accountability as the state grapples with ongoing unrest over police brutality and systemic racism.
“We cannot ignore the events taking place across our nation in the aftermath of the horrific death of George Floyd,” Majority Committee Chair Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, said. “The bills we voted on today will help ensure Pennsylvania continues to maintain an outstanding network of men and women who protect and serve with skill and integrity.”
HB 1841 would require departments to conduct more thorough background checks on job applicants and creates a repository of records that would document excessive uses of force, among other conduct issues. HB 1910 mandates training in de-escalation tactics and reconciliation techniques and requires officers involved in excessive force incidents seek evaluation and treatment for PTSD.
“This is very timely,” said Rep. Jason Dawkins, D-Philadelphia, who sponsored the PTSD amendment in HB 1910. “I believe that our officers’ health is a very key part of keeping our communities safe.”
Rep. Harry Readshaw, D-Allegheny, said his bill HB 1841 addresses a the blind spot agencies faces when hiring new officers. Without a mandate, departments don’t have to turn over employment histories, with many fearing civil liability for doing so.
“This is a problem, because the hiring agency might not know about past misconduct at other law enforcement agencies or other job positions,” he said. “I am pleased that my bill is moving forward because employers will be protected from liability for disclosing employment information in good faith; and police departments will be able to get the full picture regarding a police officer candidate’s background when making hiring decisions.”
Agencies can still hire an officer with a “red flag” against them, but would have to provide a written explanation for the database as to why they moved forward with the applicant.
Gov. Tom Wolf, who broke his own social distancing mandates to march in solidarity with Black Lives Matter earlier this month, told reporters he hopes the bills are the first of many to address police and community relations. He said convening a special session – as suggested by former House Speaker Mike Turzai in response to floor protests from the Black Legislative Caucus – remains unnecessary.
“I think it’s a first step,” he said. “I believe we have more to do and I applaud that. I certainly support that, but I don’t think we need a special session. I think all we need to do is pass bills.”
House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said the unanimous vote “speaks volumes to the importance of these issues.”
“Ultimately the issue is about trust, and taking steps to ensure all residents and all law enforcement are taking strides to build trust makes for a safer Pennsylvania, and everyone benefits,” he said.
The committee’s action comes the same week as a scheduled joint Senate hearing to investigate potential policing and criminal justice reforms.
Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania’s General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.