ACLU PA Offers Testimony at Hearing on Police Accountability Following Murder of Antwon Rose, Jr.

ACLU PA Legislative Director Elizabeth Randol

By Elizabeth Randol, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Back in June, I attended a convening with my ACLU colleagues who are working on the Campaign for Smart Justice to reduce mass incarceration by 50% and address systemic racial disparities in the criminal justice system. For three days in Pittsburgh, Campaign for Smart Justice organizers and communicators from across the country had planned on intensive strategy and skill-sharing sessions to make our campaigning as powerful as possible.

Then, on the morning of our second day, we learned that just a few miles away, an East Pittsburgh police officer had gunned down a teenager, Antwon Rose Jr., with three shots to the back as Rose fled a traffic stop.  

Putting aside our planned agenda, we quickly decided to rally and march in solidarity with the Rose family in community protests that evening in East Pittsburgh and the next day in front of the Allegheny County Courthouse.

As the Rose family continues to demand justice for Antwon, we all ask the same question about this case: How was the officer who murdered Antwon just hours into his first day of work in East Pittsburgh hired in the first place despite a long record of disciplinary issues at other departments around the county?

Last week, I testified at a public hearing regarding police training and accountability in Wilkinsburg which is, like East Pittsburgh, a borough just outside Pittsburgh city limits.

The joint hearing, convened by the PA House and Senate Democratic Policy committees and co-hosted by Rep. Ed Gainey (D-Allegheny) and Sen. Jay Costa (D-Allegheny), was in direct response to the murder of Antwon Rose, Jr.

The goal of the hearing was to educate lawmakers about what can be done to improve police training and how best to hold an officer accountable when they violate their code of conduct or themselves break the law. The hope is that this, and other public hearings and conversations, will lead to legislation that codifies better training and accountability in police departments statewide.

One recurring theme was the need for better diversity training for all police officers. Wilkinsburg Chief of Police Ophelia Coleman, a law enforcement official for more than forty years, recounted that when she took over her department the training budget for more than twenty officers was only $1500. “Today,” she proudly noted, “it’s no less than $50,000 for training.”

Wilkinsburg Chief of Police Ophelia Coleman

But, Chief Coleman reminded the lawmakers, training alone is not enough. In a perfect world, officers would be patrolling areas in which they are also community members. Calling her department one of the “best kept secrets” in terms of law enforcement in the commonwealth, Chief Coleman shared what she feels makes the officers in her department so successful: “They’re community oriented police with a capital C-O-P.”  

While it’s clear that more training for police is needed across the board, what is equally clear is that training without clear accountability to the community is nothing more than window dressing.

The good news is, when it comes to police accountability, there was a clear interest in tackling the issue among the lawmakers in attendance.  

Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) called for the open sharing of information about officers and a statewide officer database. Sen. Art Haywood (D-Montgomery) referenced legislation he introduced this session that would require the Attorney General to appoint a special prosecutor to handle cases in which police officers used deadly force. Sen. Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) recently proposed a bill package to improve police-community relationships. And House representatives are expected to introduce a series of other reforms in the coming days and weeks.

When it came time to deliver my testimony, I echoed many of the concerns already raised by advocates, agencies, and law enforcement officials at the hearing. I decided to highlight a few important police accountability reforms enacted in other states, including stricter hiring practices, stronger disciplinary procedures, standardized use of force policies, mandated implicit bias training, enhanced data collection and reporting, and the creation of independent investigations to prosecute officer-involved shootings.

After each instance of police violence, communities all too frequently are left waiting for their lawmakers to respond. Pennsylvanians deserve comprehensive and meaningful reforms that improve community-police relationships, de-escalate police use of force, and that will truly hold police officers accountable for their actions.

“Don’t just introduce legislation that’s easy to pass,” I urged the legislators, “Be bold and show your constituents where you stand by showing them what is possible.”

After I spoke, several legislators asked if the ACLU-PA could provide them with additional resources or assist with writing legislation to address these critical issues. I agreed that we could and would.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania looks forward to being an active participant in drafting and supporting bold and meaningful reform legislation. Justice for Antwon Rose, Jr. and far too many others like him is only possible when we ensure police are better trained and held accountable for their actions when they commit acts of violence.

It’s expensive, does not reduce crime, and destroys due process. So why pass it?

By Elizabeth Randol, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman resorted to fear mongering to push for a mandatory sentencing bill to pass the state Senate. Screenshot via PA Senate.

On May 18, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a joint hearing to consider House Bill 741, a proposal to reinstate mandatory minimum sentences in Pennsylvania. Clocking in at five hours, the hearing included testimony from 17 people affiliated with 14 organizations, agencies, and institutions, representing an array of expertise and insights.

At the hearing, I spoke on behalf of ACLU-PA, which has long opposed mandatory minimum sentences. From our perspective, the decision to oppose HB 741 was clear cut.

Not only are mandatories ineffective, they have done exactly the opposite of their intended purpose: They decrease certainty in sentencing, have no deterrent effect on criminal behavior, and have no causal relationship to reductions in crime. They alsoincrease the likelihood of recidivism, and directly contribute to mass incarceration while costing taxpayers a lot of hard-earned cash: Reinstating mandatory minimums in Pennsylvania would likely cost $20 million in its first year.

Those reasons don’t begin to touch due process principles. Historically, our adversarial system entrusts discretionary power to judges who function as the neutral arbiter between two opposing sides, weighing the arguments and considering the facts of each individual case before rendering a decision. Our system assigns the job of judging to judges. But because mandatories are tied to specific crimes, control over mandatory sentencing decisions shifts from the judges (the neutral arbiters) to the prosecutors (one of the adversaries) who have singular and unreviewable authority to decide what charges to pursue.

But central to ACLU-PA’s opposition to mandatory minimums is their obvious contribution to racial injustice. Study after study exposes patterns of uneven and unequal application of mandatory sentences, disproportionately imposed on low income people of color. Mandatory sentencing schemes exacerbate and compound existing racial disparities in our criminal justice system.

Most of us who testified at last week’s hearing offered some combination of these arguments — that mandatory minimums are ineffective and costly; that they exacerbate racial disparities; and that they run roughshod over civil liberties. But running counter to the steady flow of evidence-based, rational arguments were the insistent protestations of HB 741’s proponents. A video recording of the hearing can be found here.

In a raised voice, around the 167 minute mark, Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman made a bold appeal to fear. “Kids are gonna be raped,” Stedman said, because we’ve reduced mandatory sentences. He went on: “I don’t know who it’s gonna be, but it’s gonna happen. And it’s gonna happen more than once.”

During an exchange with Carnegie Mellon University professor Al Blumstein, a giant in the field of criminal justice, Senator Randy Vulakovich pressed him on why there’s no justice for victims. Unconvinced by Prof. Blumstein’s response, he then puzzled around the 96 min mark over why our system doesn’t allow victims to determine the punishment for their perpetrators.

Another senator faced down Dr. Bret Bucklen, the director of research and statistics at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. After establishing that Dr. Bucklen “looks at numbers most of the time” and “hasn’t sat with anyone whose son has succumbed to heroin addiction” as part of his job, the senator declared that he was “offended by his testimony” because it was inappropriate to “keep throwin’ numbers” around when human lives are at stake. Invoking “what the public wants and what the people are demanding” in terms of justice, the senator transformed the will of the people into a torch-wielding tyranny. And in a crescendoed finale, he drew a line in the sand and pitted people vs. facts, refusing to “take numbers over human turmoil and suffering.”

Earlier this year, HB 741 was voted out of the House — a first step toward making this indefensible bill into law. The May 18 joint hearing was the next step in that process. If questions and statements to the committee are any indication, Pennsylvania may well be on its way to reinstating policies that are blatantly regressive, that clearly run counter to all available evidence, and that will exact a steep price from Pennsylvanians.

House Bill 741 is an invitation to regress — a way to re-adopt outdated and ineffective “public safety” measures that disproportionately damage communities of color, and concentrate unreviewable power in the hands of prosecutors.

Please call your senators and urge them to vote no on HB 741.

IN OTHER NEWS

(Criminal justice news that could use a second look.)

Room with a view — of the execution chamber at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview, just northeast of State College, Pa. Photo from the Pa. Department of Corrections via Philly.com.

  • Philly.com: “What will happen to Pennsylvania’s death penalty?”

“Pennsylvania isn’t the only state in limbo over the death penalty, as debate has raged over the probability of an innocent person being executed and the propriety of lethal injection as an execution method. Capital punishment is authorized in 31 states, but only seven have carried out executions — 31 of them — since the start of 2016, according to Amber Widgery, a capital punishment policy specialists at the National Conference of State Legislatures. ‘There are people in the world who think that no one innocent has ever been executed, and others who think it happens all the time,’ Widgery said. There are also some who don’t believe you have to constitutionally execute a criminal painlessly, she said, and others who classify lethal injection as cruel and unusual.”

  • The Baffler: “How Larry Krasner’s Victory Sounded from the DJ Booth: Finally, Philadelphia has a decarceration DA candidate, even in Jeff Sessions’s America”

“It was so fucking beautiful. We wanted this. We needed this. I heard it in every cheer, saw it every face, and felt it in every hug. The race had been looking good, but even so, we surprised ourselves. Conventional wisdom said our candidate was unelectable, but here was proof that a politics of dignity for all can win — and win big. On May 16, Krasner garnered more votes than the second and third place finishers combined, and hundreds of people turned up for his election-night party. We packed into the courtyard and community room of the John C. Anderson Apartments, one of the first LGBTQI mixed-income housing projects in the country, to celebrate a historic primary victory that should now, in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans seven to one, set the stage for general election success in November.”

  • Institute for Justice: “Grandmother Who Lost Her Home Because Her Son Sold Marijuana Wins Pennsylvania Supreme Court Case”

“‘This is one of the most important civil forfeiture decisions issued by a court and the most important ever issued in Pennsylvania,’ said Jason Leckerman, a Partner at Ballard Spahr, which handled the case. ‘The court has set forth a comprehensive constitutional framework for analyzing forfeiture claims that should substantially curb forfeiture proceedings in Pennsylvania and is likely to influence other state courts considering these issues.’” More from Reason: “Court to Grandma: You Shouldn’t Lose Your House Just Because Your Dumb Son Sold Some Weed There”

  • ACLU-PA: “My graduation from a ‘segregation academy’”

“It was otherwise a mostly good experience, both while I attended CFA and this weekend’s celebrations. Unfortunately, over the course of the weekend, I saw only one other alumnus of color. Then as now, there were folks who appeared a bit leery of me, but most were very cool. Someone at the event asked me if my experience at CFA had informed my decision to become a civil rights lawyer. The truth is that it was not just CFA but my entire experience growing up in the south. And given the current state of things in N.C and beyond, there remains a lot of work to be done.”

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The work of defending civil liberties goes on

ACLU of Pennsylvania Executive Director Reggie Shuford addresses the crowd at the “Show Love for the Constitution” event. | February 15, 2017. (credit: Ben Bowens)

Dear supporter,

In some ways, our country changed on November 8. The United States elected a leader who, by all measures, is hostile to the basic foundations and principles that we stand for. President Trump and his regime deserve every ounce of pushback we can gather, and the ACLU will be on the front lines of the resistance.

And yet, at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, we have always taken the long view. Issues that are with us today were with us before November 8 and, to one degree or another, would have continued regardless of who was elected, including mass incarceration, police brutality, inequality for gay and transgender people, and efforts to compromise women’s access to reproductive healthcare.

You may have heard that there has been a major increase in giving to the ACLU since the election. While much of that growth has occurred at the national level, in fact, here in Pennsylvania, our membership has tripled. We saw a notable rise in donations after Election Day, but the real surge of giving happened after the weekend of the Muslim Ban. It was in that moment that many Pennsylvanians realized the significance of the threat to our values and to the people we most cherish.

You have put your trust in the ACLU in these challenging times. We are grateful for that trust and take it as a responsibility. Thank you.

The generous outpouring of support we’ve received in recent months has allowed us to think big about our work. It is my intention to add new staff to our existing staff of 22. Our current team has the talent, skills, and persistence to take on the many challenges before us. I also know that we can advance the cause of civil liberties throughout Pennsylvania by bringing even more talented people on board. The times demand it. Your support enables it.

In the months ahead, you’ll hear more about our Smart Justice campaign, our effort to reform, reinvent, and revamp the criminal justice system; our Transgender Public Education and Advocacy Project; the campaign for District Attorney in Philadelphia; the many bills we’re advocating for and against at the state capitol; and more litigation to push back against government excesses wherever they occur.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania is prepared to thwart the Trump administration’s worst instincts as they play out in the commonwealth.

And state and municipal officials aren’t off the hook. We’re working with immigrant communities to monitor federal immigration enforcement tactics while also standing with municipal governments that insist they won’t bend to every demand of ICE. We’re insisting that the commonwealth keeps its commitment to open beds for people who are too ill to stand trial and are being warehoused in local jails. We’re working at the state legislature to defeat efforts to hide the identity of police who seriously injure and kill people and to hide video that captures police brutality from the public. And we are active in ongoing struggles to diminish police presence in schools, to stop rollbacks of women’s reproductive healthcare, and to fight the practice of jailing people for their debts.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania has the infrastructure and the experience to defend civil rights at every turn. Consider some of our recent work:

  • Our legal team successfully freed travelers who were detained at Philadelphia International Airport the weekend of Muslim Ban 1.0, our advocacy team supported the protests at airports in Philly and Pittsburgh, and our communications staff echoed the message to #LetThemIn.
  • Two weeks ago, we settled a lawsuit against the School District of Lancaster for denying enrollment at its regular high school for older refugee students. Older refugee students will now be able to attend the regular high school instead of being segregated at an alternative school.
  • Over the last month, our legislative director has been busy at the state capitol in Harrisburg lobbying against efforts to reinstate mandatory minimum sentencing, which has been suspended for two years due to court rulings.
  • In tandem with allies, our advocacy team has launched the Philadelphia Coalition for a Just District Attorney, an effort to push the candidates for district attorney to commit to reforming the criminal justice system.
  • Last week, our lawyers filed to intervene to defend a school in Berks County that has been sued for affirming its students’ gender identity. We’re representing a transgender student and a youth advocacy organization who would be harmed if the lawsuit successfully overturns the school’s practice.

These five examples are just from the last two months. In fact, four of them happened in the last two weeks.

My favorite playwright, Pittsburgh native August Wilson, said this about gratitude in his play Two Trains Running:  “You walking around here with a ten-gallon bucket. Somebody put a little cupful in and you get mad ’cause it’s empty. You can’t go through life carrying a ten-gallon bucket. Get you a little cup. That’s all you need. Get you a little cup and somebody put a bit in and it’s half-full.”

Well, thanks to you, our ten-gallon bucket runneth over.

Onward!

Reggie Shuford
Executive Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania