The mass protests sparked by graphic video of the death of George Floyd under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer have added a rare momentum to police reform efforts among lawmakers across the country, including Pennsylvania.
A group of Democratic state representatives, all of them black, took to the dais on House floor Monday, preventing Speaker Mike Turzai from gaveling in the session and demanding action on 19 police reform bills introduced since the beginning of 2019.
The bills would overhaul the process for investigating and prosecuting police, standardize local rules and increase public access to footage of police, among other changes.
Even the president of the Pennsylvania Fraternal Order of Police, normally a fierce and powerful opponent of such measures, appeared to take a wait-and-see approach.
"The package of bills proposed by the House Democrats are currently under review,” FOP President Les Neri said. “The PA FOP remains firmly committed to having conversations with stakeholders to create an environment of healing, understanding and trust.”
“It’s almost like we were saying, ‘the time is now,’” said Democratic Rep. Stephen Kinsey of Philadelphia, chairman of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, referring to events across the country and past acts of police misconduct. “The people responding aren’t just folks of color. People were tired of it. We were tired of it also and decided to do something about it.”
House GOP leaders and Kinsey said some of the measures will be voted on Monday in the Judiciary Committee.
New York lawmakers passed a package of new rules for police, including a ban on chokeholds that sailed through the politically divided chamber unanimously. A majority on Minneapolis’ City Council pledged to dismantle the city’s police force and recreate it in some other form, a signal victory for a growing chorus of protesters demanding police be defunded.
Democrats in the U.S. House say they plan to pass legislation curtailing legal protections for police, creating a national database of officer misconduct and prohibiting racial profiling.
Police departments, long accused of covering up officers’ misdeeds, have begun arresting police filmed in violent clashes with protesters. Philadelphia Police Staff Inspector Joseph Bologna Jr. faces charges including aggravated assault after video showed him hitting a Temple University student with his baton.
Police have also been charged in Atlanta, New York and Buffalo. All four of the officers involved in Floyd’s death were fired and arrested, including those who stood by while Derek Chauvin knelt on the prone man’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
In Pittsburgh, Mayor Bill Peduto ordered an investigation into police officers’ use of force to break up a protest that turned violent on June 1. The city’s police chief, Scott Schubert, sent a letter to his officers harshly criticizing Minneapolis police for failing to stop Chauvin from killing Floyd.
Elsewhere, the reckoning came for the symbols of some of the darkest forces in American history.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is in a court battle to remove a massive statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in the capital of Richmond. On Friday, the U.S. Marine Corps ordered the removal of any displays of the Confederate battle flag, including on bumper stickers, clothing and mugs. David Petraeus, the former Army general and CIA director, penned a piece for The Atlantic urging the Army to rename bases named for Confederate generals, singling out Fort Bragg, home of the Army’s storied Airborne and Special Operations Command.
Polls indicate public opinion has swung toward the reformers’ side. More than two-thirds of Americans see Floyd’s killing as part of “broader problems in the treatment of African Americans by police,” according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll released Tuesday. Just 29 percent said it was an isolated incident. A similar poll taken after a white police officer shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, found just 43 percent saw that killing as part of a broader problem.
Turzai, R-Allegheny, asked Gov. Tom Wolf to call a special session on police reform, but Wolf said the Legislature could act now.
“A special session is not necessary to address these issues, as the legislature could vote on existing bills before their chamber,” said Lyndsay Kensinger, Wolf’s press secretary.
Republican Rep. Russ Diamond of Lebanon said he plans to introduce a bill that would change the law governing the arbitration process for police and firefighters — something former state Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Altoona, tried to do a few years ago. The bill failed at least in part because of opposition from police unions.
“We need real police reform in Pennsylvania to restore faith in law enforcement and increase accountability and transparency,” said House Minority Whip Jordan Harris, a Democratic from Philadelphia. “It’s my hope that these bills are the first of many steps in that process.”