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Protests renew Pa. police reforms

Political Notebook

As protests against police violence continue and public opinion turns solidly toward the Black Lives Matter movement, politicians from Washington to Harrisburg to small cities are taking a serious look at police reform.

But “reform” could mean just about anything — from total elimination of city police departments to new funds for training — and many elected officials are just beginning to grapple with the problem.

The killing of 46-year-old George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25 sparked weeks of protest, with small vigils and rallies in towns like Hollidaysburg and enormous rallies in cities like Philadelphia. A common refrain from the protests is “defund police” — a demand that public funds are directed away from police and toward social and community services.

The push has clearly impacted public opinion: A Civiqs poll that tracks opinions daily found that a majority of Americans now back the Black Lives Matter movement by a 28 percent margin, marking an enormous shift since 2018, when most opposed it. An ABC News/Ipsos poll released Friday suggests 34 percent of Americans support defunding police — a minority, but one that is rapidly growing in some polls.

That shift has led some politicians to renew calls for police accountability. On Monday, black lawmakers in Harrisburg protested in the House chamber, demanding votes for a raft of bills that would reform policing.

“At 1 p.m. we took the Speaker’s rostrum. We will not leave until we have action,” tweeted State Rep. Summer Lee, D-Braddock, who has proposed bills to restrict police use of force. “If Black Lives Matter, then RUN MY BILLS!”

Among the lawmakers’ bills are proposals to restrict police access to military equipment, to require checks for post-traumatic stress disorder in officers and to establish an independent state board that would investigate complaints.

One bill, first proposed by Lee last year, would require police to de-escalate and only use deadly force when a fleeing suspect poses an imminent threat to people’s lives.

While the future of the bills is uncertain in a GOP-controlled Legislature, at least some Republicans support holding a session to seriously consider the issue.

Just days before he announced his plans to step down Monday, House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Sewickley, called on Gov. Tom Wolf to approve a special legislative session — a move governors have made 17 times in the last 60 years.

“I’ve asked Gov. Wolf to call a special session on policing and our communities. As speaker of the House, I stand in solidarity with those confronting racism and racial injustice,” Turzai said. “We do have an opportunity to show the nation that in Pennsylvania, all men, women and children are created equal and are deserving of all the dignity of being human. Silence is not the answer for these challenging times.”

Wolf has pushed a series of reforms, including a new state body to review police misconduct complaints and more funds to help local governments establish their own police review boards.

Some proposed reforms could roll back changes Wolf himself approved. Last week, Wolf said he supports “improved access to police videos” — an issue addressed in the raft of Democratic reforms now up for debate.

Police body camera footage has been notably hard to obtain in Pennsylvania since 2017, when Wolf signed Act 22 into law. That law, which clarified rules on body cameras, also exempted footage from the state right-to-know law.

Public access to footage of police encounters has long been a controversial issue. Many cases that have spurred public protest — including of Floyd in Minneapolis — gained widespread attention only after bystanders filmed the encounters on cellphones.

The push for reform has drawn opposition from police unions and fraternal organizations. Even as police officials across the country condemned Floyd’s death and took photographs alongside protesters, they bristled at proposed legal changes.

Early this month, the head of the union representing Pennsylvania state troopers criticized even Wolf’s reform proposals, which stop far short of the calls to defund police.

“What happened to George Floyd was horrific and wrong,” union head David Kennedy said in a statement, according to PennLive. “There isn’t a single state trooper who disagrees. But what Gov. Wolf is saying today is the Pennsylvania State Police, and all law enforcement in our commonwealth, are no better than those charged with Mr. Floyd’s death.”

Despite opposition and an uncertain future for many of the reform bills, proponents of police reform are set to finally get a public hearing. On Monday, the House Judiciary Committee is slated to discuss at least two police bills, including one that would require former employers to turn over background information on those applying for police jobs.

The hearing marks a small victory, but one that could expand in the weeks to come.

“People are wondering whether they can trust their government to protect them, and we must show them we can,” state Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Stephen Kinsey, D-Philadelphia, said after this week’s House protest. “We have the power to change an unjust system that has held black and white Pennsylvanians to different standards.”

Wolf faces Covid-19 court fight

Wolf is readying for a legal fight with lawmakers after they voted this week to overturn his COVID-19 emergency declaration.

With counties reopening and businesses gradually returning to operation, the state of emergency no longer dominates the news. But the state still tallies hundreds of new cases each day, and Wolf’s declaration remains in effect.

Wolf faces a new challenge: an unprecedented state House resolution to end the emergency entirely. After a series of amendments, the Senate passed the resolution 31-19 on Tuesday, with local senators Judy Ward, R-Blair, Jake Corman, R-Centre, and Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria, all voting in favor.

The amended resolution then passed the House 121-81, with backing from every local Republican as well as Rep. Frank Burns, D-Johnstown.

While Republican supporters have said the resolution would uphold their constitutional powers, Wolf cautioned last week that ending the March 6 emergency declaration would have dangerous ripple effects.

Renters and homeowners would lose temporary payment protections, people seeking unemployment relief would face new hurdles and utility and school meal assistance would be pulled back, he said in a news release.

“I understand that it’s frustrating, and I understand the hardship. We have to stay focused on recovery,” Wolf told reporters Wednesday.

As the PA Post reported, Wolf expressed little patience for lawmakers’ efforts to end the declaration. He vowed to take the case to court, leaving both sides at an impasse in a case without precedent in state history.

“We’re going to have to take it to the courts to make sure that there’s not something that we’re missing here,” Wolf said. “Maybe, unbeknownst to me, somewhere embedded in the constitution is the right of one branch to arbitrarily decide to do something that is at odds with the constitution. I just don’t know where that is.”

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