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Senate hearing addresses injustice

‘We still live with the consequences’ of slavery, racism

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has galvanized the nation, but it doesn’t take a police encounter that results in death to traumatize a person of color, according to an anecdote told by state Sen. Steven Santarsiero of Bucks County during a joint committee hearing Wednesday on accountability and equality in law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

Santarsiero heard the anecdote the day before the hearing in a discussion with a black constituent who had been driving at night with his family. He had approached an intersection where a police vehicle was stopped with lights flashing, made momentary eye contact with an officer, then continued on his way — only to realize a short distance down the road that the police car was behind him — after which two officers approached with guns drawn.

The driver showed his license and registration and was allowed to proceed, but he, his wife and children retained the upsetting residue of the experience, which had resulted simply from being black — “no probable cause for the pullover, nothing wrong with the car” — an event that in some respects “is no less pernicious” than the more well-known abuses that make headlines, Santarsiero said.

Incidents like that happen all the time, said York County District Attorney David Sunday, one of 12 panelists questioned by members of the Law & Justice Committee and the Judiciary Committee, which includes state Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair. They don’t become part of any record, Sunday said.

“It’s clear to anyone paying attention that we still live with the consequences of slavery and the very real racisms that exist in Pennsylvania and throughout the country,” said Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a panelist. “Institutionalized in schools, the economy, the health care system and — the reason we’re here today — in the criminal justice system.”

It’s critical that lawmakers are “not just listening, but are prepared to act,” although they’ve made a good start recently with a proposal for a database to enable police departments to avoid hiring people with patterns of abuse and a proposal to enhance training for “implicit bias” and the proper use of force, Shapiro said.

Floyd’s death set off a “firestorm” because it was emblematic of “the collective weight of national, historic racial injustice,” said Todd Barnes, captain of the Norristown Community Justice Unit.

One of the biggest sources of problems is the sheer number of offenses that lawmakers have placed on the books over the last half-century, said Elizabeth Randol, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

The General Assembly has been a “bipartisan offense factory,” she said.

There were 72 classes of offenses when the modern Crimes Code of 1972 was adopted, she said.

Today there are more than 1,500, including many that are duplicative, she said.

Coupled with law-and-order policies, the “outsized influence of prosecutors,” presentence detention, “vanishingly few trials,” and lack of funding for overworked public defenders, those numerous offenses add leverage to obtain guilty pleas and lead to longer prison terms, especially for the poor, she said.

The difficulties of navigating the criminal justice system don’t end with release from prison, Randol said.

There are also obstacles to societal reentry that include difficulties with getting employment, student loans, drivers’ licenses, government contracts and more, she said.

“A punitive ripple effect,” she stated.

The crisis demands a response “with moral clarity,” one based on the idea “that everyone counts,” Shapiro said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

Moving forward

There were a variety of suggestions, several from Kenneth Huston, president of the Pennsylvania NAACP:

* Eliminate racial profiling.

* Collect data on all police encounters and make them transparent to the public.

* Adopt community policing.

* Ban chokeholds.

* Create a legal definition of excessive force, with deadly force used only as a last resort.

* Require periodic psychological evaluation for officers if their behavior indicates it would be helpful.

* Resurrect programs to promote trust and familiarity between police and the communities they serve.

* Consider requiring police to live in the communities they serve, so they know those communities better and feel more connection.

* Encourage programs like one in Montgomery County where youthful offenders interact with “your friends’ parents,” and other people who have a stake in the community.

* Provide “diversion” and treatment for young offenders, to keep them from criminalization in prisons.

* Provide better help for those reentering society from prison.

* Consistently seek out and teach best practices.

* Take away social intervention responsibilities from police.

* Get police out of schools, where kids can be easily criminalized for normal disruptive behavior.

* Discourage militarization of police and the “warrior mentality.”

* Reform bail, which tends to leave poor people stranded in jail awaiting trial.

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