HARRISBURG — Both chambers of the General Assembly unanimously passed police reform bills on Wednesday, spurred by Black Lives Matter protests across the country and across the state.
Just over two weeks after Black lawmakers staged a protest in the hall of the state House to demand action on the issue, the state House unanimously passed measures that would create a statewide database of police misconduct for vetting candidates for police jobs, and a bill that would require that officers be provided training for conflict de-escalation and cultural awareness and implicit bias.
Also on Wednesday, the state Senate gave unanimous final approval to police reform bills that originated in that chamber.
One would ban the use of chokeholds by police in most cases and require police departments to establish use-of-force policies, spelling out when lethal actions are permitted.
State Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, said that the moves by the General Assembly followed weeks of protests across the state, in large cities and small towns.
“The first people we need to thank are the activists who have taken to the streets,” Harris said. “All of those who’ve said ‘enough is enough.’”
State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, noted that those rallies and protests included events in places like Venango County, Cambria County, Mercer County, Butler County, Union County, and Snyder County.
“All of them have come out because they recognize our system is broken,” he said.
“We have to address the culture where bad actors go unpunished or move on with their baggage,” state Rep. Margo Davidson, D-Delaware County, said of legislation to create a police misconduct database.
State Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin County, said that the misconduct database provides an assurance to the public that officers on the force deserve to be there.
“Police officers’ jobs are made difficult by those in their ranks who are not qualified or who have ill intent or are rogue,” Kauffman said. “This is an effort to make sure that communities across know that they are hiring the best for their communities.”
House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster County, said that police reform bills passed because lawmakers on both sides of the aisle recognized the need to act.
“For centuries, this chamber has never shied away from acting on the calls from the people of our Commonwealth,” Cutler said. “Our swift action in response to current events shows the greatness of our body and the success we can achieve when our processes are used appropriately and collaboratively to serve the greater good of Pennsylvania.”
Democrats in the state House noted that the chamber still needs to address other reforms they’ve sought, including confronting the rules for use of force by police and calling for outside reviews when police kill or seriously injure citizens. Gov. Tom Wolf called for citizen oversight boards for all police departments to investigate after police killings.
“This is not the end goal. We cannot take a victory lap,” Harris said.
Both House measures were sent to the state Senate. The Senate Law and Justice Committee passed both measures unanimously Wednesday, sending them to the full Senate. The Senate is poised to move on the House bills next week, Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny County.
The House isn’t in session next week, but that chamber may add days in July to move on bills coming out of the Senate, said Mike Straub, a spokesman for the House Republican caucus.
The Senate legislation is a response to the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, a Black man who died when he was pinned under the knee of a white police officer for almost nine minutes, said state Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia.
“It’s legislation that is past due,” Street said. “It will send a clear message that Pennsylvanians wish that law enforcement responsibly use their use-of-force power,”
The other measure requires that police file reports to state police detailing uses of force and that the state police must then compile that information into an annual report on incidents across the state.
The report on use of force would help the public better police conduct, said Costa, author of the legislation.
“This is important information so we understand what’s happening,” Costa said.