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Effort to change police use-of-force law could be uphill battle

Written by An-Li Herring/WESA | Apr 19, 2019 4:51 AM
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A protester holds a sign at a rally following the shooting of Antwon Rose Jr. on Thursday, June 21, 2018. (Katie Blackely/WESA)

(Pittsburgh) -- Members of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus on Wednesday reiterated their desire to change Pennsylvania's police use-of-force law. It is one of a series of reforms proposed since the fatal police shooting of Antwon Rose in East Pittsburgh last summer. However, University of Pittsburgh law professor and 90.5 WESA legal analyst David Harris says it could be tough to get the bill passed.

"Law enforcement is not going to like this," Harris said. "They like the law as it exists, the way it is now. It tends to favor them."

Harris said police often argue that narrowing the standard for lethal force puts them at risk. And he notes they have successfully blocked use-of-force reforms in other parts of the country, including "fairly progressive" states like California.

Still, Harris said it's significant that lawmakers in Pennsylvania have begun to discuss the issue.

"If you go back five years," he said, "these proposals would never have been made, period - let alone would we be talking about their possible success at some point in the future."

Pennsylvania's use-of-force law came under increased scrutiny after former East Pittsburgh officer Michael Rosfeld shot and killed Rose in June. The unarmed teen had fled a car at a traffic stop that had been involved in a drive-by shooting just minutes earlier. Rosfeld was charged with homicide, but a jury acquitted him last month.

State statute allows officers to use lethal force when they believe someone has committed or tried to commit a forcible felony, if they believe it will help them make an arrest. But, Rose family attorney Lee Merritt said that provision is unconstitutional.

"The constitutional law, based on case law from the United States Supreme Court, does not support that idea whatsoever that you can shoot someone that you believe to be a felon, just to stop them from leaving," Merritt told WESA during Rosfeld's trial last month.    

The Supreme Court ruled in the 1985 case Tennessee v. Garner that police may not use deadly force to prevent the escape of a fleeing suspect unless they reasonably believe the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury.

"There's a good argument that [Pennsylvania's law] is out of sync with U.S. constitutional law on police use-of-force," said Harris.

But he added, "That doesn't mean that there's no debate. It means that the Pennsylvania law should be re-examined because it may be constitutionally troublesome."

State Reps. Ed Gainey (D-Homewood) and Summer Lee (D-Swissvale) announced last month that they will propose a bill that would allow deadly force only when life is at stake and non-lethal methods have failed.

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