Bills to end choke holds, require use-of-force policies could get Pa. Senate vote this week

Both House and Senate committees have advanced police reform legislation since nationwide protests began

  • Benjamin Pontz

Police reform legislation in the state House and Senate is expected to receive an up-or-down vote by the end of the week. But, legislative leaders and advocates say the bills represent only a first step and that more can and should be done during the summer.

Democrats in both chambers have put forth a raft of ideas, including requiring a special prosecutor to investigate police-involved shootings, codifying in law the right to record police officers working in public, and funding a pay raise for some police officers. Thus far, Republican committee leaders have advanced some of the less controversial bills through committee with broad bipartisan support.

On Monday, a pair of bills passed the state Senate Law and Justice Committee, the first pieces of legislation to advance after two full days of joint committee hearings last week.

One, SB 1205, would ban police from using choke holds except in instances where deadly force would otherwise be permitted, and would require training on the use of deadly force.

The other, SB 459, would require municipal police departments to have a use-of-force policy and to report details on incidents in which force is used to the State Police.

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Senate GOP spokesperson Jenn Kocher said the bills represent practical reforms and said the leadership hopes to have both bills considered on the Senate floor as soon as Wednesday.

“The hearings that we held last week pointed to these types of reforms being something that can be accomplished and useful,” she said.

Banning choke holds and requiring municipal police departments to have use-of-force policies are two pieces of a suite of legislation Senate Democrats have proposed in wake of recent nationwide protests demanding police reform.

“Yesterday was a huge step in the direction of reform,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny), “but our work is only partially complete.”

The bill to ban choke holds also ranks high among the priorities of a group of black lawmakers who took over the House floor earlier this month.

Much of the Democrats’ proposed legislation was introduced months ago, and some date as far back as the 2018 death of 17-year-old Antwon Rose, who was fatally shot by an East Pittsburgh police officer.

Senate Law and Justice Committee Chairman Pat Stefano (R-Fayette, Somerset & Westmoreland) said the proposals approved Monday — both of which passed the committee unanimously — signal the seriousness with which the legislature is approaching the issue and represent “an important first step.”

The House has also taken steps toward reform.

Last week, the Judiciary Committee approved measures to create a database of complaints against officers that law enforcement agencies would have to search before hiring new officers, and to mandate that officers who use deadly force receive a mental health evaluation within 30 days.

Neither measure has yet received a vote on the floor, but House GOP leadership spokesperson Mike Straub said police reform will be a priority this week now that the GOP has installed its new leadership team. The chamber will take up the bills that recently passed the House Judiciary Committee.

Former Speaker of the House Mike Turzai, who retired last week, had urged Gov. Tom Wolf to call a special legislative session on police reform, but Wolf said the body should focus on the bills in front of it. Straub said that is exactly what the House plans to do.

“Frankly, our existing process is the fastest way to address the bills in question,” Straub said. “The judiciary committee worked to find bipartisan solutions and now the House will act on HB 1841 and HB 1910 today. Both bills have the support of statewide law enforcement organizations and work to strengthen the relationships between police and the communities they serve.”

Pennsylvania ACLU Legislative Director Elizabeth Randol said while she does not want to throw cold water on the four pieces of legislation that may move this week, they represent incremental steps at best, and she worries that “nibbling around the edges of reforming police practices” could give legislators cover to move on before tackling more systemic issues.

Randol said the proposal requiring municipal police departments to have use-of-force policies, for example, is a self-evidently good idea, but does nothing to change the underlying use-of-force statute that a jury determined justified the police shooting of Antwon Rose.

Reforming that statute, she argued, is the most important reform the ACLU would like to see legislators tackle because it would have effects both on the front end in how police are trained and on the back end through holding police officers accountable.

“Now is the time for bold changes to our use-of-force statute to add constraints so that the ability to use deadly force is more narrowly tailored,” she said.

With the world watching, Randol expressed hope the legislature will move deliberately over the next several months to “level up” their engagement on issues of police reform and hold more hearings and work towards system-level change.

“The context within which these bills are being introduced is in response to a national reckoning about police practices,” she said. “The burden ought to be on the legislature to respond with the seriousness and comprehensiveness that acknowledges the justifiable outrage that people feel.”

» PA Post is an independent newsroom covering policy and government in Pennsylvania. For more, go to www.papost.org.

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Pa. Senate committee approves police reform bills banning chokeholds, requiring use of force policies