By Pete Mazzaccaro
Last week, the Local had the opportunity to speak with State Sen. Art Haywood (D-4th) about efforts of a broad package of police reform legislation.
On June 30, the PA Senate passed sent two house bills to the Gov. Tom Wolf’s des to sign. House Bill 1841 will require former employers to share information with police departments performing background checks on perspective officers and create a statewide database of that information. House Bill 1910 will strengthen police training on interacting with people of diverse backgrounds and race.
Two more Senate bills – one banning the use of chokeholds and the other requiring police departments to create use of force policies – will be considered by the house. Both have already received strong support and are expected to pass.
Haywood spoke about those bills, his own proposal to have special prosecutors investigate police use of deadly force and what he would like to see the Senate take up next to address systemic racism more broadly.
I was just taking a look at what looks like a real broad range of police reforms that the Senate Democrats have put forward. Some of these proposals look like they’ve been on the table for a long time — at least since 2014 or so — do you think now is a better time for this than it was five years ago, four years ago? Do you think you have a chance of getting something done now?
I think 2014 or 2015 would have been a much better time, so we could address [incidents of police brutality] as they come up, however, the Black Lives Matter protests have forced the majority here in Harrisburg to deal with these issues. But for the Black Lives Matter protest, these matters we’ve been ignored as they had to ignore for the past several years.
I believe that because of protests we will move some legislation forward. Yesterday (June 22) we moved forward on legislation banning chokeholds.
We also moved legislation forward requiring police departments to develop use of lethal force policies. And this week, we’re also going to move forward legislation to require a statewide database of police personnel, so that every police department can know about the good and the bad. [This is a house bill propsed by 200th district Rep. Chris Rabb that would track police records statewide so that bad cops cannot get jobs elsewhere as has happened in the past.]
So those are some pieces of legislation that I anticipate will move out of the Senate and get approved in the House in the next two weeks.
What do you think has been the main obstacle for police reform for the last six years?
The legislature has to weigh the claims of the victims versus the claims of law enforcement. And each time the legislature has weighed those two it has come out on the side of law enforcement. Until now, when the demands of the victims are so consistent and so supported across the nation. So, I believe what has changed is the view that the victim’s perspective counts for a lot.
In addition, all of the pieces of legislation I just mentioned are supported by law enforcement. Law enforcement supports the personnel database, the chokehold prohibition as well as coming up with a use of force policy. A common link in all of the legislation that is passing is that it is also supported by law enforcement.
And the moment is happening now only because of the protest movement.
How about your main contribution to the overall package, a bill to create a special prosecutor to investigate uses of deadly force. What prompted you to come up with that proposal?
I proposed it in 2015. It was my first my first bill when I was first elected, after Michael Brown was killed [in Ferguson, Missouri] and Eric Garner [in New York City]. In both of those instances it looked like prosecutors weren’t going to do anything. In any event, there was a pattern of local prosecutors not prosecuting police officers who were involved in police involved shootings and killings.
So. separating the local prosecutor and investigator from the local police department was seen as one remedy by many. We’ve seen it elsewhwere, most recently in the [Ahmaud] Arbery case down in Georgia, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the investigation from the local prosecutors when they failed to act quickly. The same happened in Minnesota. The Attorney General has taken over the investigation [of the police killing of George Floyd] from the city of Minneapolis.
So basically, it comes out of the recognition of a lack of trust in local prosecutors investigating local police. Some people characterize it as a type of conflict of interest. I don’t know that I would go that far, but there’s a perception of bias. Even if there’s no bias, there’s a perception of bias, and in order to restore trust, we have to eliminate that impression.
You said that parts of this package for police reform have the support of law enforcement. I would imagine you’re bill probably doesn’t have support of local police unions. Is that true? How steep a climb is it for this particular bill to get passed?
It’s not in the first set of legislation that will pass that I’ve previously described, so it is a bigger challenge. Part of that is support from law enforcement.
Now, I will say that there are some police chiefs who have said to me they favor the legislation. Chief [Bill] Kelly, who was the chief of Abington police before he retired has shown some support. Chief [Charles] Ramsey, who was a former police chief and Philadelphia, he’s shown support.
The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association has proposed a modified version where instead of the state attorney general conducting the investigation, it would be an outside district attorney. So maybe the Montgomery County DA would handle a Philly case and vice versa. So, we’re talking to the PA District Attorneys Association about their proposal.
I’m curious about the role of state legislation and reform of police departments. I would imagine municipalities like Philadelphia tend to run their own show. How much influence does the state have on local municipal police departments in bigger metropolitan areas like Philadelphia, or even small in smaller cities like Reading or Lancaster?
There’s a lot of local control over police departments. I agree with you.
The rules we’re coming up with are statewide applications so that across the commonwealth there will be no chokeholds. Across the Commonwealth, every police department would have to come up with a use of force policy. We’re not, at this point, approving the policy, we’re just requiring the policy, creating standards where standards may be lacking. The database would be a statewide database, so a police department in any part of the state could know before they hired a cop if they had some serious issues.
We can have an effect onqualified immunity. So right now, police officers that are involved in a shooting have a significant level of immunity for prosecution, and that level of immunity could be reduced by state law so that there’s more individual accountability.
Those are a few areas where state laws could apply. But there are many others, I agree with you, where [reform] has to be a local government effort.
Police reform is rightly front and center of everybody’s mind now you’re for obvious reasons, but it’ll probably only do so much to address systemic racism in general. After police reform, what do you think is maybe the most significant place that you could focus some legislation?
I’m glad you asked that. There are four pieces of systemic racism we can address in Harrisburg.
The first one is related to the history of black jobs. And historically black jobs were very low paying, menial jobs. Indeed, that history of low paying, black jobs, is now expressed in a $2.18 minimum wage for restaurant workers and a $7.25 minimum wage for many other low-paid jobs. So the one thing that we should do to address the issue of systemic racism is deal with the history of black jobs being low paying jobs and raise the minimum wage to eliminate that piece of systemic racism.
Second, black education obviously was prohibited during enslavement and severely underfunded during segregation. And today our funding formula creates significant underfunding for districts that are predominantly black and brown. So the second thing that we can do to address systemic racism is to address the fair to educate African Americans rooted in enslavement. And that would be to apply the fair funding formula to all the education money
The third is related to credit. African Americans have historically been denied equal access to credit. We need to set aside money for African American borrowers and put it into institutions that are willing to work with them. If you put money in the wrong institution, it’s not going to get the money to the right people.
And my last is to deal with over policing and over incarceration, particularly overincarceration.
The incarceration budget in Pennsylvania exceeds that of higher education. Thirty years ago, about 8,000 people were in prison in the state of Pennsylvania. Now there are 44,000. We have not seen any kind of difference in crime proportionate to that kind of increase. By that I mean crime has not gone down fivefold.
So, we have to cut the incarceration rate and apply those funds to activities that really build up a community. That would include some job training, social services, and mental health support.
One thing I’d like to highlight is causation. But for the Black Lives Matter protests across the state, and the nation, none of this would happen. A lot of this legislation has been around a long time. So, all credit goes to the Black Lives Matter protesters.
And finally, many demands of that movement will not be met by the four pieces of legislation I described. Black Lives Matter wants to address systemic racism; we haven’t done that. There is still fundamental police reform that we’ve not done, so don’t think that what we’re doing this week or next week is going to satisfy the Black Lives Matter protesters. It does not satisfy me.
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