(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania lawmakers endorsed bills Wednesday that would overhaul law enforcement hiring, training and use of force procedures in the wake of a national reckoning over police brutality and systemic racism.
House Bills 1841 and 1910 sailed through the lower chamber with unanimous support after several impassioned speeches from members of the Black Legislative Caucus – whose floor protest two weeks ago put legislative action into motion.
“Police officers have been given a place of undeniable trust in our society, said Rep. Margo Davidson, D-Delaware. “Because of this trust – which in some cases is unparalleled – and the high honor of service in which they pledge, they must be held to the highest standard and given the tools to meet those standards.”
HB 1841 creates a database of officer conduct records that departments would use to supplement more thorough background checks during the hiring process. Any agency looking to hire an officer with any red flags would have to justify the decision in writing. HB 1910 mandates training in de-escalation tactics, reconciliation techniques, implicit bias, recognizing and reporting child abuse and requires officers involved in excessive force incidents to seek evaluation and treatment for PTSD.
“Issues that challenge our time are best addressed when every voice involved has a seat at the table,” House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said. “These bills are a reflection of that process.”
The chamber floor erupted into applause after each bill passed, and although Democrats welcomed the bipartisan support, many cautioned that the reforms only addressed some of the issues between police and communities of color.
“We are not at the end of the ramp yet,” said Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia. “We cannot take a victory lap. This is a small deposit in a bank account that's been empty for too long for our Black and brown citizens.”
Meanwhile, senators in the upper chamber unanimously endorsed two measures – Senate Bill 459 and 1205 – that ban the use of chokeholds and mandate use of force policies for the state’s 1,100-plus local police departments.
“It is critical to ban chokeholds except in circumstances where another life is under imminent threat,” said Sen. Tom Killion, R-Delaware, a co-sponsor of both bills. “And it is disconcerting formal use-of-force policies were not already required in the commonwealth.”
The reforms come one week after the Senate Judiciary and Law and Justice committees hosted a two-day joint hearing on necessary reforms to improve community and police relations. The NAACP of Pennsylvania and the ACLU of Pennsylvania, among many others, encouraged lawmakers to ban chokeholds and examine use of force policies that disproportionately target people of color. Several law enforcement testifiers at the hearing said chokeholds have not been taught to officers in four decades and agreed with the banishment policy.
“The murder of George Floyd was a flashpoint that has forced us to reimagine public safety,” said Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, prime sponsor of the chokehold ban. “People from all walks of life converged on cities across America to declare simply ‘Black Lives Matter.’ Prohibiting chokeholds and mandating development of established use of force policies for every law enforcement agency in our commonwealth are essential reforms long overdue.”