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Harrisburg Council proposes changes to strengthen police advisory board, including subpoena power

A screenshot from Tuesday’s City Council work session.

Harrisburg City Council plans to make changes to a proposed police advisory board that would give the body more teeth, including administrative subpoena power.

During Tuesday’s work session, council member Ausha Green said that she will amend Bill 8 based upon input that council received from residents during three town hall meetings held in August.

“One thing that we heard from the public was the need for subpoena powers,” said Green, who chairs council’s public safety committee. “It’s not in our purview to give judicial subpoena powers, but we can afford administrative subpoena powers.”

Green also said she would like to insert a statement of intent into the bill. This would better communicate the board’s purpose of providing accountability to the Harrisburg police bureau rather than serving as a community liaison.

The proposed changes seemed to address additional public comments received by council and read during the meeting last night.

“I have concerns that the bill, as written, has no teeth in holding police accountable and makes the board into little more than a public relations mouthpiece for the police,” one public comment read.

Many public comments during the Tuesday meeting touched on the idea of allowing the board to act independently. In the past, people have asked that police Commissioner Thomas Carter be removed as a non-voting member of the board.

“The board must be allowed to deliberate in private,” resident Vishal Bajpai said. “To be legitimate, the board must be sufficiently independent from the Bureau of Police.”

As the bill stands, the commissioner and the public safety chair would both be non-voting members. Green proposed an amendment that would remove them and, instead, invite them to quarterly meetings. Taking their place would be two more voting members from the city at large appointed by the board, Green said.

Council member Danielle Bowers submitted an amendment, as well. She would like to see neighborhood groups formed throughout the city to confer and bring forth candidates, one from each of the seven policing districts.

“I think this would offer a prime opportunity for them to work together to offer a recommendation that they all feel best represents their neighborhood,” she said.

Council will discuss Bill 8 again at their next work session on Sept. 29. The amendments have yet to be voted on.

“I don’t have an issue with the amendments as drafted,” Mayor Eric Papenfuse said.

On the subject of policing, council discussed a proposed resolution that would establish use of force reporting to council and Papenfuse.

Since the resolution was introduced, the police bureau did provide council and the mayor with a report in June, city Solicitor Neil Grover said. The report included the existing required report on complaints with some information on use of force.

However, several council members said they weren’t satisfied with the report, saying it didn’t include everything they requested.

“It seems very high level,” Green said. “It seems like it was very quickly put together. It needs to be kept up to date on a monthly basis.”

Papenfuse said that he is planning to propose a records management position within the police bureau that is outward-facing and dedicated to reporting.

“We really do have a capacity issue at the police department and that is best addressed by the establishment of some new positions,” he said.

The resolution on use of force reporting will be brought up again at the next work session, as well.

To watch past Harrisburg City Council meetings, visit the city’s YouTube channel.  

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