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.”
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.