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Local Legislators Unveil Plan to Reform Police-Community Relations

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
September 17, 2018
Posted in: Crime and Police News, McKeesport and Region News

State Rep. Austin Davis, center, and State Sen. Jim Brewster (right, back to camera) participated in a peace walk through McKeesport July 6 following a police-involved shooting in East Pittsburgh. The McKeesport legislators have joined colleagues from Pittsburgh, Forest Hills and Mt. Lebanon to promote police reform legislation. (Vickie Babyak photo for Tube City Almanac)

In the wake of a police-involved shooting in East Pittsburgh that killed a 17-year-old and roiled the community, several local state legislators have unveiled a package of reform bills.

The legislation would be designed to improve police officer training and salaries; provide incentives for small municipalities to pursue regional police forces; encourage additional community oversight and recruitment of more diverse candidates to become police officers; and provide for an independent response team to investigate police shootings.

Backing the package of bills are state Sens. Jim Brewster of McKeesport, Jay Costa of Forest Hills and Wayne Fontana of Pittsburgh's Brookline neighborhood, along with state Reps. Austin Davis of McKeesport, Ed Gainey of East Liberty and Jake Wheatley of the Hill District.

“We need to do more to improve the training, quality and support of officers,” Costa said at a press conference last week. “But our improvements need to extend beyond police departments and into communities. I believe the package of bills we are working on can do that.”

The legislators held a series of town-hall style events this summer in the wake of the shooting June 19 of Antwon Rose II, 17, an honors student at Woodland Hills High School.

Rose was a passenger in a car that was stopped in East Pittsburgh after police thought it matched the description of a vehicle involved in a drive-by shooting in nearby North Braddock.

When Rose and another passenger fled from the traffic stop, investigators said East Pittsburgh police Officer Michael Rosfeld opened fire, striking Rose three times. Rosfeld has been charged with criminal homicide.

The shooting sparked widespread protests throughout the Pittsburgh area and Turtle Creek valley, forcing the closure of several roads, including the Parkway East.

There have been published reports that Rosfeld was dismissed from other police departments, including the University of Pittsburgh campus police, following accusations of misconduct, as well as allegations that the East Pittsburgh police --- which at last report, according to the Tribune-Review, had five part-time officers --- lacked up-to-date policies and procedures.

East Pittsburgh and North Braddock officials recently announced that they are considering disbanding their police departments and contracting for services from neighboring municipalities, or Allegheny County, which patrols nearby Wilmerding.

According to one count, there are more than 100 different police departments serving Allegheny County, many staffed only with part-time officers or serving only a few thousand people. Pennsylvania leads the nation in the number of local police departments, with nearly 1,000, according to federal Justice Department statistics.

Brewster is encouraging the creation of a statewide grant program that wouild encourage small departments to merge into larger, regional police forces.

"Many communities are forced to operate with part time officers, who themselves must work multiple jobs to make ends meet," Brewster said in a memo to other state senators, provided to Tube City Almanac by his office. "One measure that can be taken to overcome this is to provide incentives for departments to merge or consolidate on a regional or countywide basis."

Brewster is proposing a grant incentive program to help with planning, facility decisions, equipment requirements, and operating costs associated with regionalization.

The program, he said, would "provide a broader scale for hiring police at better wages, increase department access to minority communities for recruitment, and improve professionalization of officers."

State Sen. Jim Brewster speaks to participants in a peace walk sponsored by the McKeesport unit of the NAACP. The McKeesport Democrat is encouraging the creation of a statewide grant program that wouild encourage small departments to merge into larger, regional police forces. (Vickie Babyak photo for Tube City Almanac)

“The time has long since passed that we modernize policing and criminal justice in Pennsylvania,” said state Rep. Dan Miller of Mt. Lebanon, who joined the other legislators for the press conference, held at the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh.

But Miller added that many local police departments are struggling to answer societal problems --- including untreated drug abuse and mental health problems --- that in his words have been "dumped" on police officers' desks.

“We must do better, and working with law enforcement is key to raising standards across the board,” Miller said. We must ensure professionalism and accountability while eliminating the historically discriminatory impact of our criminal justice system on communities of color and on people of limited economic means.”

The legislation, currently seeking co-sponsors, would do the following, according to a spokesperson for state Senate Democrats:

- Create specialized units to respond to crisis situations, including officer-involved shootings, to provide immediate access to mental health counseling for police and community members;

- Develop a statewide database to permit transparency in the hiring of police officers; the database would include any disciplinary actions, misconduct or discriminatory policing complaints lodged against law enforcement personnel;

- Require the state Municipal Police Officers' Education & Training Commission to develop a uniform policy on the use of force and deadly force by police officers, and direct municipalities that lack such policies to adopt those policies.

- Create a bipartisan legislative caucus on cultural awareness in policing that can study police activities and make recommendations on improving community police relationships;

- Improve municipal police officer training to include enhanced classroom and field training for police recruits; and

- Provide psychological counseling for police officers who may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other conditions.

“I can’t think of many other relationships as important to the unity and safety of our community than the one between police and citizens,” Davis said. “We have seen the devastating consequences when there is a breakdown in that relationship.”

The legislation being promoted is “a crucial step in the right direction,” he said.

“We need to ensure that police can continue in their mission to protect and serve, while citizens can feel confident in their ability to trust and support police actions,” Davis said.

Jason Togyer is editor of The Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at tubecitytiger@gmail.com.

Originally published September 17, 2018.

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