The duty of elected legislators to be a conduit for the voices of Pennsylvanians cannot be understated. We, the members of the state General Assembly, must never forget that we are the people assembled.
And right now, our responsibilities as legislators could not be more important as we face a global pandemic and the harsh reality that we have much work to do to improve relations between law enforcement and communities throughout our country.
I have struggled to find the words to address George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. My heart aches for Floyd’s family and friends.
I am sad for the people who feel they cannot trust the law enforcement in their own neighborhoods, who don’t feel they are treated equally by those sworn to protect them.
And I am dejected for the small business owners who have had their livelihoods severely disrupted by COVID-19, only to be destroyed by riots.
This is a hard time for so many.
As a nation, we have made much progress over the years to improve race relations, but George Floyd’s death and the worldwide response thereafter are tragic reminders that there is much work yet to be done.
So now, perhaps more than ever, political leaders need to lead, to do what is right, and to do so with modesty, humility, prudence and grace. We must speak with moral clarity and come together to collectively condemn the injustices within our society. The words we use matter and are of consequence. But of greater importance are our actions.
Last week, I was pleased to participate in two extensive joint Senate hearings aimed at exploring accountability and equality in law enforcement and the criminal justice system in our commonwealth.
Committee members spent nearly 10 hours asking questions and listening to testimony from more than 40 participants, including state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, district attorneys, the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, criminal justice experts and representatives of law enforcement.
Our shared goals: improving relations between law enforcement and communities, training compassionate and effective police officers, and building a criminal justice system that adequately serves the needs of all citizens.
Last week, the Senate unanimously passed two bills aimed at achieving those goals. Senate Bill 459 would provide law enforcement agencies with record-keeping and reporting requirements regarding the use of force and deadly force. It also requires a statewide report to be compiled annually on use-of-force incidents.
Senate Bill 1205 would prohibit the use of chokeholds except in situations when the use of deadly force is permitted. It also would require law enforcement agencies to adopt use-of-force policies and to train officers on procedures allowed under those policies.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives unanimously passed House Bill 1841, which would require disclosure of previous employment information to a law enforcement agency conducting a background investigation of an applicant. It would also create a repository for records of law enforcement officers, so that hiring decisions can be made with more complete information.
House Bill 1910 would require the Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission to develop in-service training that includes instruction on the use of force and de-escalation techniques, as well as instruction in implicit bias and community and cultural awareness. It was amended to require police training in trauma-informed practice, and to require officers to get evaluated by a licensed mental health professional for post-traumatic stress disorder under several conditions.
I am hoping the entire package of bills will be sent to Gov. Tom Wolf for his approval as soon as this week.
But pursuing legislative reforms is only one piece of the puzzle. Racism and hatred cannot simply be addressed through changing the law. Compassion, understanding and unity cannot be legislated.
To address these issues, we need to look within and be willing to hear opinions and feelings from those who do not share our own.
When our fellow Americans repeatedly express their fear, frustration and concerns with the current state of police/community relations, we must listen with compassion and empathy.
As a state senator, I have spent time riding along with local law enforcement throughout northern Lancaster County, and I am extremely proud of the work they do honorably and selflessly.
However, I think we need to be open to the reality that the good relationships we have with the police may not be experienced by all of our fellow citizens.
And so, it is past time we come to the table to engage in a civil, respectful and productive discussion about how we can address these challenging issues.
Our success depends on our ability to listen, seek understanding and work together. Far more unites us than divides us. And the stakes have never been higher.
State Sen. Ryan Aument, a Republican who resides in Mount Joy, represents the 36th Senate District; he is secretary of the Senate Republican Caucus. Twitter: @SenatorAument. This is an abridged version of a column that originally appeared on his website.