For the second time in four years, the Harrisburg City Council is considering the creation of a police advisory board.
The previous effort in 2016 never got out of committee. But residents are hoping for a better outcome this time as the world’s attention is focused on police reform after the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.
City council members are poised to discuss the proposed legislation at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday during a work session via video conference. But more than 50 residents met via video conference Monday to educate themselves on the legislation. Several residents shared their desire to create a review board that would have more teeth, instead of merely an “advisory” body.
The bill, as it stands, appears to have been written from the police department’s point-of-view instead of residents, said Kimeka Campbell, co-founder of Young Professionals of Color-Greater Harrisburg, who lead the video conference. The YPOC group along with The Movement sponsored Monday night’s session to learn more about the proposed legislation and possible amendments.
Instead, she said the bill should be written from the perspective of residents. She particularly objected to the first listed “core function” of the board, which is intended for police to teach residents about the role of law enforcement.
“That should be amended,” she said. “Language matters.”
According to the current proposed legislation, the board’s core functions would be to:
Assist in fostering a better understanding of the role of law enforcement and reviewing policies, practices and data. The goal should be to “improve transparency and accessibility to public information.”Provide residents with a forum to voice concerns about police interactions and responses and to identify systemic or recurring issues of importance to residents.Promote policies and practices for the protection of the community to further the goal of the “fair, just and dignified treatment of each and every person.”Provide recommendations to the police bureau, the mayor and city council on “policies to maintain public safety for all, promote law and order, assist in the reduction of crime and protect all in the community.”Foster positive relationships and an improved understanding between the police department and residents.
The city’s police union already has signed off on the proposed advisory board legislation, according to Mayor Eric Papenfuse. It’s unclear what changes, if any, the union would support, and whether city council members would need their support for particular changes.
But some residents on the video conference Monday night said they wanted meaningful changes and an advisory-only board might not deliver.
Jayne Buchwach, a Harrisburg school board member who participated in Monday night’s call, suggested amending the legislation to give the board subpoena powers and the ability to summon independent investigators, prosecutors and medical experts, if necessary, after a police interaction that injures or kills a community member.
“The board wants that right. It’s critical,” she said. “I would assume we’re going to get some pushback. But this has to be the community that wants this.”
In other suggested amendments, Buchwach said the board should receive a report after community complaints have been investigated by the Internal Affairs unit so board members can understand the thoroughness of the investigation and the outcome.
She also said residents want their police officers to be residents of the city, but that would require a change to the police collective bargaining unit, which was renegotiated last year and could remain in effect for five years.
Buchwach said she would favor a gradual restoration of the city residency requirement, which had been in effect for many years until the city bargained it away in exchange for pay cuts during the city’s financial crisis.
Campbell shared the city’s organization chart that showed the citizens of Harrisburg at the top of the chart, with the elected mayor, city council, city treasurer and city controller reporting directly to them. The police bureau is several levels below in the department of public safety.
City residents pay taxes that finance the city’s activities, Campbell said, so it’s only right that residents should weigh in on how officers police the community and how accountable officers are to the community.
Campbell encouraged residents on the call to write letters to city council members and participate in Tuesday night’s work session to make their wishes known as council weighs the legislation.
After the call, Buchwach told PennLive the proposed legislation needs amendments to become more meaningful.
“Otherwise, it’s just a glorified complaint center,” she said. “We don’t need that. We already have city council and they are accountable to voters. We need a mechanism to provide fair and honest accountability…It’s not anti-police. It’s just absolutely not. We want them to be part of this.”
In addition to legislation to create an advisory board, city council on Tuesday also will discuss a bill that would provide guidelines for the review of use of force policies and practices in the city and establish timelines for such reporting to the mayor and council.
City council members are expected to deliberate but not act upon the legislation at the work session. Instead, council members typically vote on legislation at legislative sessions. The next legislative session is scheduled for July 7 but neither of the police bills are currently listed on the agenda.
The council will then break for summer recess, but Councilwoman Ausha Green, who chairs the public safety committee, said residents could continue to discuss the legislation.
“I do believe we will be going on hiatus so it probably won’t be getting passed before we go on hiatus,” she previously told PennLive, “but I think it will give us a great opportunity to continue the conversation to the summer on different platforms and in-person if we can. If not, we’ll do it virtually.”
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