Major Pa. police executives, officer union leaders sign statement in support of ‘red flag’ reforms

“Officers who engage in misconduct or use excessive force erode trust in law enforcement and make it harder for our communities to be and feel safe."

  • By Charles Thompson/PennLive

A group of major police and police officer union leaders in Pennsylvania signed on Thursday to a statement of support for legislative changes that would be designed to keep public any record of past disciplinary or personnel infractions against law enforcement officers, making it harder for those with red flags in their past to get new jobs in the field.

The document, signed onto by the top police executives in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association and leaders of the police union in Philadelphia and the state Fraternal Order of Police lodge, which speaks for most of the municipal police officers across the state, shows at least conceptual support for hiring reforms that Democratic state lawmakers have been supporting for several years.

In their joint statement, they said:

“Officers who engage in misconduct or use excessive force erode trust in law enforcement and make it harder for our communities to be and feel safe. When they leave and agency, or retire in lieu of termination, their record needs to go with them. We stand united in calling for reform of the hiring process so that law enforcement agencies have the information to make informed decisions about the personnel they hire.”

The statement was released Thursday afternoon by state Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

“After listening to the community and law enforcement leaders, I saw there was common ground on this issue and worked to bring people together,” Shapiro said. “Millions are peacefully demanding change in our country and we need to show them we’re listening. This is a down payment on the kinds of reforms we need to deliver.”

The joint statement was a breakthrough in the sense it marked the first time major police unions have voiced support for these kinds of hiring reforms, said Sen. Jay Costa, the Democratic Floor Leader from Pittsburgh who introduced a bill to achieve the same goal in 2018, after an East Pittsburgh officer shot an unarmed black teen named Antwon Rose.

“I think it’s a big development for advancing these reforms,” said Costa, adding that the police union endorsement might also catch the attention of Senate Republican leaders who control legislative traffic in that chamber. Costa’s bill, thus far, has not received any formal consideration.

PennLive’s attempt to reach Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman on the Costa bill Thursday evening was unsuccessful. But in a statement released earlier in the day, the Centre County Republican noted that his caucus has supported important criminal justice reform bills in previous sessions, like bills permitting non-violent offenders expanded opportunities to clean their records, and he said the Republicans are “committed to engaging in a constructive conversation about how we move forward.”

Shapiro’s effort culminated on the same day that Gov. Tom Wolf called for a top-to-bottom review of use of force training standards at all law enforcement training academies in Pennsylvania, and the convening of a work group to develop standard, best practices for training police in their interactions with the public.

The reform calls also came in the midst of continued demonstrations in big cities and small towns over the May 25th death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, as he was in the custody of Minneapolis police.

Floyd was suspected of passing a counterfeit bill at a Minneapolis convenience store. He died in police custody after an officer was captured on video kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes. That officer, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with second-degree murder, and the three officers who were on the with him have been charged as accessories.

Costa and other Democratic lawmakers, including many members of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, have listed the creation of a database of disciplinary actions and complaints lodged against officers as a top priority that, in their view, would make it harder for problem officers to stay in the field.

Similar legislation aimed at weeding out teachers with bad acts in their past was passed in the Corbett Administration.

In the police world, however, at present a hiring law enforcement agency is typically unable to get information from prior employers about complaints against an officer or any disciplinary issues. Because of this, records are sometimes not even requested. That leaves departments in the blind to a prospective employee’s history, even when misconduct or a pattern of excessive use of force has been documented.

In the Rose case, the East Pittsburgh officer who shot Rose three times as he fled a traffic stop, Michael Rosfeld, had previously been terminated by the University of Pittsburgh for unjustly detaining two men when he was a campus police officer there. Costa said East Pittsburgh hired Rosfeld with no knowledge of the incidents at Pitt.

Costa’s bill would, among other steps, create a statewide database of disciplinary actions taken against police and require that any prospective employers of a would-be officer be permitted full access by prior employers of any personnel file pertaining to terminations, suspensions or other disciplinary actions.

Wolf was asked Thursday about Philadelphia Rep. Jordan Harris’s suggestion, as reported by Spotlight PA earlier this week, to consider direct Pennsylvania State Police to create such a database by executive order. The governor did not include such a step in the reforms he proposed, but said he plans to continue to work with lawmakers on the issue.

Other Democratic police reform proposals include bans on the use of chokeholds, providing access to body-camera footage through the state’s open-records law, and create an oversight board to certify officers.

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