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Pleas for police reforms made at Senate hearing

Lawmakers, district attorneys and officials of special interest groups testified Wednesday before the state Senate Judiciary and Justice Committees regarding police and criminal justice accountability reforms.

Testimony included statements from those who say much more needs to be done to curb what has been termed “police militarism” in communities to statements that law enforcement reforms have been under way to make for better policing.

Pennsylvania NAACP President Kenneth Houston said, “I see law enforcement as entities designed to protect communities they serve.”

The recent killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis represents the sort of violent, unprovoked attacks that must stop, he said.

Various police reforms are needed including elimination of racial profiling, banning of choke holds and regular psychological evaluations of officers.

“It can’t be an us-against-them mentality,” he said. “We have to be all in this together.”

Houston was asked if his organization has seen an increase in police-related complaints.

“Yes. We have. We get hundreds of calls,” he said. “We have seen in the last two years a serious uptick of complaints relative to police officers.”

Houston called for building relationships between police and communities.

“The topic and timing of this hearing is proof that something is happening,” state Sen. Lawrence Farnese, D-Philadelphia, said. “The status quo is no longer moral and no longer endurable.”

Farnese noted the protests in communities across the state bringing to light police violence against blacks with law enforcement having lost the trust of citizens.

“Our task is to listen carefully and act courageously to rebuild the trust,” he said.

State District Attorney Josh Shapiro said many Americans and law enforcement agencies felt the pain when Floyd was killed by police.

“It shows we have a long way to go,” he said.

He called for ending the practice of hiring police officers with histories of using excessive force or engaging in other misconduct. The use of databases can help prevent such hirings.

This week, the state House passed a bill that establishes a database containing separate records of law enforcement officers for use by other police departments when hiring certified police officers.

“It’s critical that the public has trust in law enforcement,” Shapiro said. “The rule of law must be applied fairly to everyone.”

Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele called for everyone to be engaged in the process of police reform.

He noted that collaborative strategies for policing communities have been used in some of his county’s more crime-ridden communities such as Pottstown and Norristown.

“Equal justice is what we are seeking every day,” he said. “It demands we treat every citizen equally.”

York County District Attorney David Sunday noted some of the improvements in law enforcement including reentry and treatment programs for offenders.

“We have to make sure we don’t back away from these initiatives. COVID could be extremely detrimental to all the work we have done, and we can’t allow that to happen,” he said.

Others testified that there is still much to be done to improve law enforcement and ensure people are treated justly by police.

In what she termed a “relentless march to overcriminalization,” ACLU Pennsylvania Legislative Director Elizabeth Randol noted the growing multitude of criminal offenses used to arrest and prosecute people.

“We have over-militarized our police force,” she said, noting that disproportionate numbers of people of color are arrested.

She called for the decriminalization of victimless crimes.

“Quit passing legislation that adds to criminal offenses,” she said.

State Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Loyalsock Township, said the hearings will evaluate the need to strengthen laws and make reforms.

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