State representatives hold public hearing on amending use of force laws

  • Ariel Worthy/WESA

At a Tuesday public meeting in Rankin, state Reps. Summer Lee and Ed Gainey heard from several members of the public on legislative proposals to limit the use of deadly force by police. But the issue was especially personal for Michelle Kenney, the mother of Antwon Rose II.

Kenney’s son was shot to death by a police officer in nearby East Pittsburgh last summer. And she told those gathered at the Hawkins Village Public Housing complex that the rules governing use of force should be changed, “so that no other mother has to sit in this seat to beg you to offer their child what should be guaranteed under the law anyway.”

Kenney emphasized that she is not anti-police, but that changes are needed to protect the public.

“I just hope that everybody understands that the changes being proposed in this use-of-force bill are not to harm the police or cause them any danger,” she said. “It’s just to protect the people that they’re supposed to protect and serve.”

Democratic legislators, including Allegheny County’s Sara Innamorato and Dan Miller, want to change the rules that dictate when officers can use force, and what kind they can deploy.

The proposed changes include requiring officers to use de-escalation techniques and non-lethal options before deployig deadly force. Officers would also have to demonstrate that using lethal options was necessary due to a “threat to life.”

Another bill would create a database to track police officers’ misconduct.

“If there’s a police officer who had misconduct in one precinct, [they’re] not able to move to another one without that misconduct being made public,” Lee said. Lee noted that Michael Rosfeld, the officer who killed Rose, had previously been accused of misconduct when working at an officer at University of Pittsburgh. (A lawsuit filed by former Pitt students against Rosfeld last year was dismissed.)

Millvale Police Chief Tim Komoroski was the only police representative who spoke to the panel of state lawmakers, discussing his police department’s efforts to be diverse and transparent. Part of that includes adding body cameras to all of the officers in September. The statewide chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police sent a written statement saying the current law governing use of force has been in place for decades.

“Any legislation intended to ‘move the target’ by setting new and possibly unconstitutional legal standards for police uses of force risks upsetting a system that has worked successfully for Pennsylvanians for many years,” the FOP said. “Because of this the PA FOP opposes any legislation that will disrupt the longstanding legal rules governing police use of force.”

Lee said that police groups had missed an opportunity to make their case.

“I wish that we could have come up with a date that worked for them so that they could come here, so that they could lay their concerns on the table,” she said. “They are obviously a huge impacted population by this. It would have greatly benefited our panel to hear them. But also for them to respond to questions that may come from our panel.”

Lee said the first hurdle the bills face is getting Republicans, who control the legislature, to give the bills a hearing.

“We’re asking for our day in court,” she said. “Put it up for a vote. If you believe that police officers are great the way it is, then great… But give us our day to make our case.”

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