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Citizen commission hands down seven ideas to change state police practices

  • Sam Dunklau
Crime investigators work the scene at a Wawa convenience store and gas station in Breinigsville, Pa., Wednesday, April 21, 2021.

 Matt Rourke / AP Photo

Crime investigators work the scene at a Wawa convenience store and gas station in Breinigsville, Pa., Wednesday, April 21, 2021.

(Harrisburg) – A citizen-led commission created last year to improve state-level law enforcement practices now has a few ideas to share.

Gov. Tom Wolf created the panel, known as the State Law Enforcement Citizen Advisory Commission, in July in the wake of racial justice and police accountability protests.

The 27-member panel is supposed to make sure internal investigators properly look into incidents where state troopers, Capitol police or state park rangers used force or may have shown bias. The group also must offer ways to prevent future problems.

Over the last few months, commission members reviewed their first set of cases involving state police troopers, two of which happened in 2016 and one in 2018. The panel found ways PSP could improve the way they were handled and voted Friday to pass seven recommendations on to the agency, suggesting it should:

  • Refer all use of deadly force or officer-involved shooting cases to an independent agency capable of handling that kind of investigation;
  • Adopt objective language to more closely comply with a Supreme Court ruling that lays out the rules for determining if force is necessary and improve de-escalation policies;
  • Continue ongoing efforts to integrate evidence-gathering technology on patrol cars, buy cloud storage and equip troopers with body cams;
  • Improve the rules around handcuffing and transporting children who allegedly commit crimes;
  • Consider installing security shields or other devices in patrol cars to prevent having to handcuff to start with;
  • Require all bias-based policing cases be internally investigated if a person asks for it, even after a court adjudicates a complaint; and
  • Update on and off-duty code of conduct policies, to keep troopers from doing things like making offensive comments about someone’s identity online or joining militia groups like the Oath Keepers.

Pennsylvania State Police Communications Office Director Brent Miller said the agency cooperated with the commission’s reviews and is taking those ideas “under advisement.”

“PSP appreciates the dedication and time these citizens have volunteered to improving public safety and fair treatment, and addressing inequities in law enforcement,” Miller said.

Commission member David Sonenshein said he and others attended training sessions at the state police academy in Hershey as part of their review. While he said he discovered training instructors are already incorporating some of the commission’s recommendations, those ideas weren’t always reflected in training manuals or written policies.

“The training was excellent. I just think we have to let the provisions and the policies catch up with the training,” Sonenshein said.

Activist groups like Campaign Zero have called on police to be more transparent with how they look into cases where cops hurt or kill someone. They argue citizen oversight groups can make sure they do, and can more easily root out bad cops and policies.

Pennsylvania’s state-focused commission does not determine whether cops acted correctly in a given situation. It only investigates the investigators. It also doesn’t look at cases involving local or county police agencies, though there are citizen groups that do that kind of work in cities like Pittsburgh, and more recently in Philadelphia.

Still, state commission member Denise Ashe said the work, even if limited in scope, is important.

“We know cases where these things do happen,” Ashe said. “The idea is to have policy (be) updated so that it doesn’t continue and it is handled in the correct way.”

The Citizen Advisory Commission is expected to consider another group of cases within the next few months.

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