At a critical moment for policing in western Pennsylvania and the nation as a whole, a state legislative hearing will be held in Wilkinsburg today that could bolster legislative attempts to bridge the gap between officers and the Pennsylvania communities they serve.
The joint public hearing was called by the state Senate and House Democratic Policy committees and will begin at 1 p.m. at Hosanna House, Wallace Event Center, 807 Wallace Ave.
The committees will take testimony on a number of proposals that would “improve relations between police officers and the communities they serve, such as additional training and diversity education for law enforcement,” reads a portion of a press release announcing the event.
Testimony will be heard from guest speakers including law enforcement officials; Leon Ford, who was shot and paralyzed by a Pittsburgh police officer in 2012; a forensic pathologist and a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Allegheny County Police Superintendent Coleman J. McDonough is one of two law enforcement officials slated to speak. McDonough’s agency is responsible for probes into the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Antown Rose II in East Pittsburgh, a four-mile drive from the location of today’s hearing, and Sunday’s shooting of an armed man in Arlington by City of Pittsburgh police.
Political pressure has been building around Rose’s death, which prompted protests in and around Pittsburgh for weeks. A criminal homicide charge has since been filed against the officer involved.
Since the shooting, lawmakers in Harrisburg have announced plans to introduce bills related to Rose’s death — this includes Democrat-proposed legislation to improve training at municipal police departments — there are more than 100 in Allegheny County alone — and another that would empower Allegheny County’s yet-to-be-created Civilian Police Review Board to hold municipal departments accountable and not just the county’s own police force.
More than a dozen Allegheny County Democrats have also called on House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Wexford) to bring members back to Harrisburg for a dedicated session on policing. But in an email to The Incline on Monday, Neal R. Lesher with Turzai’s office indicated that won’t be happening.
“The legislative session schedule has been known to all House members for some time,” Lesher said. “We will have additional session days in the Fall, where there will be ample opportunity for lawmakers to prepare and present legislation that is in the best interest of the people of Pennsylvania.”
Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Allegheny, was among those calling for the dedicated session on policing to happen sooner than later. In a phone conversation with The Incline on Monday, Wheatley said, “The fact of the matter is nothing will get done overnight and the longer we delay having this conversation —what we don’t want is for this issue to go away and die and nothing changes.”
Wheatley added, “But if [Turzai] says he’s open to having a discussion on this in the fall, I’m open to working with him to make that happen.”
Wheatley also acknowledged that while Rose’s death renewed the urgency around this issue for lawmakers like himself, the conversation around criminal justice reform in the capital was underway long before.
“Although the Antwon Rose II shooting definitely kicked us back into gear, it was really a continuation of efforts that started long before,” the representative added.
Wheatley will be in attendance at today’s event in Wilkinsburg and said he ultimately wants to see this overall process yield greater standardization of law enforcement practices across Pennsylvania through legislation.
“We’re looking at how you create public trust while also creating standards across the Commonwealth around training and policies and I’m hoping to hear some thoughts and get the conversation started while building a commonality around some of this legislation moving forward,” he said.
But if you’re a member of the public planning to attend today’s hearing, know that testimony and comments will be limited to the experts on hand.
“Since we have a full agenda with scheduled testimony from law enforcement, community leaders, advocates and policy experts, we do not have a public comment period,” said Jim Dawes, executive director with the House Democratic Policy Committee.
“Anybody from the public can email a statement to me at firstname.lastname@example.org to be entered into the hearing’s official record. The goal is to collect testimony to help devise effective legislation. There will be nearly 20 state legislators from all over Pennsylvania in attendance to listen and ask questions of the testifiers,” he said.
The House Democratic Policy Committee typically holds hearings outside of Harrisburg to investigate the local impact of certain issues and collect valuable expert input, the committee’s website explains. These hearings often serve as the catalyst for policy initiatives put forth by members of the House Democratic Caucus.
According to a press release announcing today’s event, the hearing is being held in Wilkinsburg at the request of Senate Democratic leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, and Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Allegheny. The event will be jointly chaired by state Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton/Lehigh, and state Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster. Senators Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, Wayne Fontana, D-Allegheny, and James Brewster, D-Allegheny/Westmoreland, as well as Representatives Wheatley, D-Allegheny, and Austin Davis, D-Allegheny, will also participate.