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Nothing New: Attempts at Much-Needed Police Reform in Pa. pre-date George Floyd’s death

By June 16, 2020 No Comments

State Rep. Summer Lee stands with supporters of Antwon Rose II on the steps of the Allegheny County Courthouse following the acquittal of former East Pittsburgh Police Officer Michael Rosfeld (Current Photo: Jake Mysliwczyk)

By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Lit Writer
jody@pittsburghcurrent.com

 

On March 22, 2019, an Allegheny County jury acquitted Michael Rosfeld of criminal homicide in the killing of 17-year old Antwon Rose, II. The charges were brought after the then-East Pittsburgh police officer shot Rose three times while Rose fled. Rosfeld’s acquittal hung on Title 18, Section 508 regarding use of force by law enforcement officers. 

As protestors filled the streets here, house Representative Summer Lee of Pennsylvania’s 34th District, which includes Homestead, Forest Hills, Braddock and Edgewood, started to work on a bill that would amend Title 18 to limit the use of deadly force by police officers. Lee, a Democrat, introduced the bill to the House on June 19, 2019, the one year anniversary of Rose’s death. 

“At the end of the day, I think that legislators, lawmakers in this country, we have been accustomed to ignoring the plight of black and brown people. Especially when it comes to police violence, police brutality and police accountability,” Lee told the Current via telephone. 

As we approach the second anniversary of Rose’s death, her proposed legislation, House Bill 1664, sits in the Judiciary Committee of Pennsylvania’s House, where it has languished since June 24, 2019. 

The Current reached out via both email and telephone to Republican Representative Rob Kauffman of Pennsylvania’s 89th District who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, but he has not responded. 

Amid statewide and nationwide protests over police violence sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Lee believes elected officials are duty-bound to do something and to do it with urgency. 

“Legislators see these things happen, they will see these uprisings, they will hear the calls of people on the streets and they will wait it out. They’ll kick the can down the road, they’ll kick the can down the road and that’s what we’ve been doing for decades. We’ve been kicking the can down the road,” she said. 

According to Pennsylvania Title 18, Section 508, an officer can deploy deadly force on a fleeing person who possesses a deadly weapon, irrespective of whether or not that person indicates a threat or desire to inflict bodily injury or harm. 

In layman’s terms, Lee’s proposal changes the circumstances under which deadly force may be used:  only if the suspect presents imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm to the officer or another person can an officer use deadly force. 

“It does something else, too, in that it adds the term, ‘reasonably believes.’ The way the law currently reads is that an officer is justified in using deadly force if he believes that it is  necessary in self-defense, or in defense of others, or to prevent resistance or escape if the person has committed a forcible felony or possesses a deadly weapon,” said Jalila Jefferson-Bullock, MA, JD, Associate Professor at Duquesne School of Law. 

“This adds to that a reasonable belief, which is quite different. I think she did that to add a measure of objectivity and uniformity, because otherwise we’re just left to the whims of whatever a police officer believes. Reasonable belief is more of a measurable term in criminal law. It is going to ask about what the ultimate decision was and the process by which that decision was made, rather than just leaving this belief up to an officer’s subjective whim.” 

Lee says that her bill makes a police officer’s service weapon the weapon of last resort. In effect, it adds proportionality, in that the use of a deadly weapon would be proportional to the threat. In short, a service weapon would be used in self-defense, or to protect another person in grave danger. Lee believes that change would be good for all parties involved. 

“If the statute is vague and a police officer who is rogue, who is bad, who is violent, kills somebody who is unarmed — kills a 17-year old child. If he comes on a force where he already had misconducts, is able to change departments, and on the first day at work, shoots a 17-year-old kid in his back three times and prosecutors aren’t able to work with that because of that statute? What we’re seeing is an egregious error,” Lee said.  

While the Current was at work on this story, the Judiciary Committee was scheduled to meet July 15 to vote on two other policing bills, HB 1841 and HB 1910. 

Bill 1910 would require police officers and minor judiciary to receive training which would  help them to recognize child abuse and be fully aware of reporting requirements. 

Bill 1841, introduced by outgoing-Rep Harry Readshaw (Democrat, 36th District) would help weed out officers with spotty or dangerous track records by requiring previous employers to disclose information to law enforcement agencies conducting background investigations for applicants. It would further permit the courts to compel the release of such information if the employer fails to comply. 

A Black Lives Matter protest June 5 (Current photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)

Prior to his being hired by the East Pittsburgh Borough Police Department (which has since been disbanded), Michael Rosfeld was employed as a University of Pittsburgh police officer. He was fired by Pitt in January 2018, something that would be required to be revealed by Bill 1841. It should be noted that Rosfeld filed a lawsuit in January, 2020 contending that Pitt fired him without cause. That matter is still in litigation, though Pitt issued a statement saying that they had no intention of ever reinstating Rosfeld. 

As to Lee’s bill, she says that communities, especially marginalized communities, need for the police to be held to a higher standard. 

“What she’s trying to do is not take power away from the police necessarily. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about holding the police accountable because the way that the law stands now, police are given incredibly wide latitude in determining when to use deadly force,”  Jefferson-Bullock explained. 

The changes to Title 18 would, in fact, make it easier to prosecute law enforcement officers for criminal homicide. But Summer Lee says that isn’t the point of her bill. She hopes that changing the statute will prevent homicides. 

“What we really want, we want to protect black lives, we want to protect disabled lives, we want to protect brown lives,” she said. 

“The way to do that is to make it very clear under which circumstances force is acceptable and justified. We also want to change the culture around how force is used and when force is used. To do that, we need to make it abundantly clear, abundantly clear, that the only time you can use force is when your life, when you face an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury, you or someone else.” 

In the meantime, House Bill 1664 waits. 

If anybody remembers their ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ lesson, bills go from the House committee to vote in the full House. And while that educational music video was set in Washington, DC, things run much the same in Harrisburg. If a bill passes in the State House, it then goes to the State Senate and the process repeats there. 

According to Bill Patton, Press Secretary for the House Democratic Caucus, the partisan atmosphere is not unexpected. Beyond straight party-line votes, the adversarial mood also means that legislation like Lee’s can get jammed up in committee and never see the light of day in the House. 

“Unfortunately this is typical for Democractic legislation. Our caucus has experienced this on, not just with this committee, but this is one of the committees where it is especially prevalent. We can introduce as many bills as we want, but very few of them get full consideration in committees,” Patton said.

The Pennsylvania House is a Republican controlled body, with 110 GOP members and just 93 Democrats. Lee’s bill, should it come out of committee, will need 102 votes to pass. Voting in the House in Harrisburg often breaks down along party lines, so even if this legislation is permitted to see the light of day, it is a tough road for Lee and other backers of this bill. 

But Summer Lee maintains that is nothing short of dereliction of duty to not try to effectuate legal changes. 

“Folks are confused as to why people are saying that this institution has fundamentally failed. It has fundamentally failed communities of color. I think that the least that our Legislature should do is take common sense measures as a good faith effort and good faith step to say that we are willing to talk to you, we are willing to listen to you and now is the time to move forward,” she said. 

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