OP-ED: The Time for Police Reform is Now

A few weeks ago, I took to the floor of the PA Senate to speak about the important role the General Assembly must play if we are to bring people together and build a stronger Pennsylvania. When our Commonwealth faces difficult challenges and our people are divided, lively debate in the Pennsylvania House and Senate can help bring us together. The legislative process by nature requires debate, compromise, and consensus, leading to greater unity and ultimately progress.

The duty of elected legislators to be a conduit for the voices of Pennsylvanians to ensure their representation in the General Assembly cannot be understated. We are their voice. We must listen to them, and we must act on their behalf. We, the members of the General Assembly, must never forget that we are the people assembled.

And right now, our responsibilities as legislators could not be more important as we face a global pandemic, a constitutional crisis within our own state, and the harsh reality that we have much work to do to improve relations between law enforcement and communities throughout our country.

I have struggled to find the words to address George Floyd’s death. My heart aches for Mr. Floyd, as well as his family and friends who all watched their loved one take his last breath on video.  I am sad for the people who feel like they cannot trust the law enforcement in their own neighborhoods, who don’t feel they are treated equally by the men and women who swore an oath to protect them.  And I am dejected for all the small business owners who have had their livelihoods severely disrupted by COVID-19 only to be destroyed by riots.  This is a hard time for so many.

As a nation, we have made much progress over the years to improve race relations and the relationship between police and our communities.  But George Floyd’s death and the worldwide response thereafter are tragic reminders that there is much work yet to be done.

So now, perhaps more than ever before, political leaders need to lead, to do what is right, and to do so with modesty, humility, prudence, and grace.  We must speak with moral clarity and come together to collectively condemn the injustices within our society.  The words we use matter and are of consequence. But of greater importance are our actions.

To that end, I want to provide you with a brief update on what the Pennsylvania General Assembly is doing in response to the widespread calls for change.

Last week, I was pleased to participate in two extensive joint Senate hearings aimed at exploring accountability and equality in law enforcement and the criminal justice system in our Commonwealth. Committee members spent nearly ten hours listening to testimony from over 40 participants and asking questions to learn more about potential solutions to issues like improving police training, updating use of force policies, and reforming probation and parole policies. Testifiers from all backgrounds provided members with their unique perspectives, including Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, district attorneys, the NAACP, ACLU and other activists, as well as experts in law enforcement, public safety, and criminal justice such as representatives from the Fraternal Order of the Police and the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association. Lancaster County’s own Chief of Police for Northern Lancaster County Regional, David Steffen also testified before the committees.

These hearings represent a starting point as we engage in collaborative discussions on how we can achieve our shared goals of improving relations between law enforcement and the community, training compassionate and effective police officers, and building a criminal justice system that adequately serves the needs of all citizens.

As a result of these hearings, the Senate this week unanimously passed two bills to achieve such goals. Senate Bill 459 would provide law enforcement agencies with record keeping and reporting requirements regarding the use of force and deadly force by law enforcement officers. It also requires a statewide report to be compiled annually on use-of-force incidents. Senate Bill1205 would prohibit the use of chokeholds except in situations when the use of deadly force is permitted, as well as require law enforcement agencies to adopt a use of force policy and to train officers on procedures allowed under the policy.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives unanimously passed bills that would implement a number of police reforms. House Bill 1841 would require disclosure of previous employment information to a law enforcement agency that is conducting a background investigation of an applicant. It would also create a repository in the Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission (MPOETC) for records of law enforcement officers, so that hiring decisions can be made with access to more complete information regarding the prior employment of a law enforcement applicant. House Bill 1910 would require MPOETC to develop in-service training that includes annual instruction on the use of force and de-escalation techniques, as well as instruction in implicit bias and community and cultural awareness. It was also amended to require MPOETC to train police in trauma-informed care, specifically PTSD, and require officers get evaluated by a licensed mental health professional for PTSD under several conditions, most notably within 30 days of the incident.

I commend Senators Lisa Baker, Lawrence Farnese, Pat Stefano, and Jim Brewster, the chairs of the Senate Judiciary and Law & Justice Committees, as well as both Senate and House leadership for taking swift action to advance these proposals. I am confident that the broad cooperation and widespread support for these bills will result in a favorable vote in each chamber to send the entire package to the Governor for his approval as soon as next week.

But pursuing legislative reforms is only one piece of the puzzle.  The social issues, racism, and hatred that lie beneath the surface are larger pieces that cannot simply be addressed through changing the law.  Compassion, understanding, and unity cannot be legislated. To address these issues, we need to look within and be willing to hear opinions and feelings from those who do not share our own.

When our fellow Americans repeatedly express their fear, frustration, and concerns with the current state of police / community relations, we must listen with compassion and empathy. We must recognize that while our own past experiences with law enforcement may have been positive, this may not be the case for all of our fellow citizens.

As a State Senator, I have spent time riding along with local law enforcement throughout northern Lancaster County, and I am extremely proud of the work they do honorably and selflessly serving our communities. However, I think we need to be open to the reality that the good relationship we have with our police departments in our own communities may not be shared by every resident or community throughout the state and country. Therefore, we must be open to the suggestions for improving those relationships.

And so, it is past time we come to the table to engage in a civil, respectful, and productive discussion on how we can address these challenging issues confronting our criminal justice system, train compassionate and effective police officers, and build trust and accountability within our communities.

This is a difficult but necessary endeavor.  Our success depends on our ability to listen, seek understanding, and work together. Far more unites us than divides us. And the stakes have never been higher.