Black Pittsburgh lawmakers’ protest forces action

Historic disruption of legislature causes speaker to call for special session as lawmakers vow to keep pressure on

HARRISBURG, June 9 – As protests and rallies continue across Pennsylvania and the nation, lawmakers from Pittsburgh today vowed to keep the pressure on House leadership to move long-sought police reforms after their protest in the House Monday led Speaker Mike Turzai to call for a House special session.

“We are not willing to go back to business as usual and we are not willing to go back to ‘normal,’” said state Rep. Summer Lee, who has been fighting for criminal justice reforms since taking office and who last year also organized a rally demanding change after the death of Antwon Rose. “We did not disrupt the House Monday for social media likes, press clips or to draw attention to ourselves. We did this because after decades of injustice piled on injustice, the people in the streets are demanding change – they are the ones driving this forward, they are the ones setting the agenda. As elected representatives, we are only doing our jobs by channeling and amplifying their voices in Harrisburg.”

As a normal legislative voting session was set to begin Monday, members of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus and their allies blocked Turzai from the rostrum, and, for more than an hour and a half, spoke forcefully on behalf of their constituents and the need for the legislature to take action. For more than a year, House Republicans – who control what legislation gets voted on – have declined to even hold hearings on several bills that were introduced to address many of the issues that sparked recent protests.

“This week, I proudly stood with several of my House Democratic colleagues to demand tangible legislative action to address the issue of police brutality and policing reform,” said state Rep. Jake Wheatley. “Our taking the rostrum and bringing the social activities that are occurring on our streets to the Capitol was more than symbolic, it was a continuation of the efforts from many of my colleagues and me to bring needed reforms. Policing is just one part to a complicated maze of challenges that will dismantle systemic racism and the various outcomes that result. My commitment is to continue to push for immediate actions on bills, including police professionalism measures, but also on the work we have started in the criminal justice system.”

Last year, legislators introduced a bevy of bills aimed at streamlining police procedures and improving police-community relations. The legislative package features multiple bills and resolutions, including legislation that would:

  • Modify definitions in statute for the use of deadly force.
  • Reform interdepartmental police hiring by requiring law enforcement agencies to keep detailed personnel records surrounding an officer leaving a job.
  • Appoint a special prosecutor to investigate any incident of deadly use of force involving a law enforcement officer.
  • Reform the certification and decertification process for police officers.
  • Address arbitration regarding matters of discipline for police.

“For those of us today who have grown up and experienced the struggle firsthand, we’re in a unique position right now to enact positive change in our communities and throughout the commonwealth,” said state Rep. Austin Davis. “We have the power, right now, to change history and the outlook on how minority communities are viewed by police and vice versa. But we have to be willing to stand together here today and say enough is enough.”

After black members spoke for more than an hour, the state House recessed for the day so that lawmakers could negotiate a special session to address the issues they had raised. While Turzai sent a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf Monday evening requesting such a session, lawmakers noted that House Republicans could advance legislation without such an event, and vowed to keep the pressure on until needed reforms are voted by the full House – either in a special session or not.

“We feel the pain and frustration in our communities, because we share that same pain and frustration,” said Rep. Ed Gainey. “For too long we have been ignored, or paid lip service as the legislature goes about its business without any meaningful action. No longer. We sent a message Monday, and today we are sending another one – we are watching, and we are waiting, but our patience is running thin.”