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As Pa. takes first steps on police reform, critics say it doesn't go far enough

Cynthia Fernandez
Spotlight PA
“It all begins and ends with this database,” said Michelle Kenney, the mother of Antwon Rose II.

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HARRISBURG — It has been two years since a police officer outside Pittsburgh killed Antwon Rose II, a Black teenager who was unarmed at the time.

His mother, Michelle Kenney, is convinced: If a measure to create a database of police misconduct had been embraced by lawmakers when it was introduced shortly after her son’s death, “we could have saved a couple lives in Pennsylvania.”

Now, the police killing of George Floyd has spurred the beginnings of long-awaited reform by the General Assembly, including a database to ensure bad officers are unable to jump from job to job — which could be considered by the state House as early as this week.

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Currently, there is no uniform way for local police departments in Pennsylvania to share instances of officer misconduct with other agencies, meaning someone fired for an egregious reason could find a job with another department.

Under the proposal, approved last week by a House committee, police departments would be required to document why officers leave an agency and maintain disciplinary records showing complaints and criminal charges. This information would be included in a confidential database for police chiefs to check during the hiring process.

“It all begins and ends with this database,” Kenney said in an interview this week. “I don’t think the public really understands what happens when an officer applies to a jurisdiction that they may have either had friends in or know people in.”

The proposal has the support of major police departments and unions as well Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who said it was the culmination of months of work with Black lawmakers.

Though a positive step forward, the database does little to further public accountability and transparency, experts say.

That’s in contrast to New York and New Jersey, states that are beginning to make some officer misconduct information — long shielded as confidential personnel records — available to the public.

Elizabeth Randol, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, applauded the database proposal but noted that 13 states make that information available to the public, which the current legislation would not do.

“It is difficult to recommend solutions if these problems remain in a black box,” Randol told lawmakers during recent hearings on police reform.

David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and law enforcement expert, agreed the public should know how well a police department is responding to misconduct complaints, and said other states have not had issues after disclosing the information.

“There is no other way to say it: This lack of transparency to the public must change,” Harris told lawmakers. “All of this information is of real concern to members of the public, and the workings of the system that it illustrates is perhaps more important than what might be learned by records of any individual investigation. Yet, most of this information has remained unavailable to the public.”

The bill does make available under the state’s open-records law “hiring reports” that must be compiled if a department chooses to hire an applicant with a criminal conviction or “final or binding disciplinary action” for wrongdoing, including excessive force, discrimination and sexual abuse.

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The Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission, which sets statewide training and certification standards, will determine how detailed those reports will be.

“Those regulations will be strong and if not I am going to keep pushing them,” said Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, whose own database legislation was amended into the current version. “If this doesn’t do what it is supposed to do, then it was just a big waste of time. It will only anger people more — and I will be among them. It will be a farce.”

Timothy Uhrich — an attorney for Michael Rosfeld, the ex-officer who fatally shot Rose — said his client had only minor misconduct, including a traffic accident, to note when he was hired by the East Pittsburgh Police Department. According to Uhrich, Rosfeld disclosed to East Pittsburgh how he left a previous job as an officer at the University of Pittsburgh: The school presented Rosfeld with a termination memorandum after he arrested three men outside a bar, including the son of a vice chancellor, Uhrich said, leading Rosfeld to resign.

Two of the men arrested sued, saying they were unjustly detained. That suit was later dismissed. Rosfeld is suing the University of Pittsburgh over his departure.

“There is this prevailing notion that East Pittsburgh (Police Department) did not do a proper background check into Michael, which is the furthest thing from the truth,” Uhrich said.

A jury acquitted Rosfeld of all charges in Rose’s death. The case was prosecuted by the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office, something Rose’s mother objected to.

“Most victims in this situation are looking for an outside entity, with no allies, no communications, no friendships,” she said.

She believes similar cases should be handled by the U.S. Department of Justice. In Pennsylvania, most officer-involved shootings are investigated by local police and prosecuted by the county’s district attorney’s office, Shapiro told lawmakers this week. Cases are referred to the attorney general’s office when there is a conflict of interest or if the county does not have the resources to prosecute.

Sen. Art. Haywood, D-Philadelphia, is the sponsor of a bill that would direct these cases to a special prosecutor instead, an idea he first put forth after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two Black men who died at the hands of police.

Currently, the measure would direct the attorney general to appoint someone within his office to investigate police killings.

“Local district attorneys every day work with police in order to prosecute criminals,” Haywood said. “So getting the separation, getting the distance, (and) eliminating bias are all part of the desire to have independence.”

Because of objections from Shapiro about the possible cost, Haywood said he’s exploring amendments including referring these types of cases to an adjacent county. Either way, prosecutors should not handle these cases in their own districts, said Harris, of the University of Pittsburgh.

There’s public support for independent investigations and prosecutions, “but that’s been a very hard sell to get through the legislature, not just here but in a lot of places,” Harris said.

During his tenure, Shapiro said, only a handful of homicides by officers have been referred to his office. He said those kinds of incidents require personnel to be on the ground quickly to investigate, and it would be a costly endeavor for the attorney general’s office to undertake.

“That is really a question for the (district attorneys), as to why they haven’t referred more,” Shapiro told Spotlight PA this week. “Perhaps the answer is they have not had many come their way. I don’t know. I can’t speak for them.”

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