How much power should be given to a new citizen’s committee on police matters in Harrisburg?
That was the central question of the evening, as City Council on Tuesday night began debating a proposed “Citizen’s Law Enforcement Advisory Committee.”
In comments, some residents urged council to create a board with real enforcement mechanisms, though exactly how much power the board will have seemed to remain in question.
“It’s important that we recognize what we need to do when it comes to reform,” said City Council Vice President Ben Allatt.
The proposed bill was introduced at last week’s legislative session and explained as a way to improve relations between the Harrisburg Bureau of Police and the public.
As currently proposed, the committee would be made up of seven residents, each representing a Harrisburg policing district. As proposal stands now, members would have the power to collect information from the public record. This may include analyzing use-of-force summaries, body camera and other footage and then creating policy recommendations for the bureau, city Solicitor Neil Grover explained.
However, some residents who submitted comments to council oppose the bill in its current form, saying it doesn’t give the committee enough power and doesn’t grant them the power to subpoena.
The Young Professionals of Color—Greater Harrisburg held a virtual panel discussion on Monday night to deliberate their issues with the bill and called upon their members to demand amendments from City Council.
As a result, about 40 people submitted public comments to council that were read at the work session on Tuesday night. Most saw subpoena power as necessary, among other powers, such as the ability to initiate public investigations.
“We write to demand implementation of a citizen’s review board for the Harrisburg police department, one that holds affirmative oversight powers. The proposed police advisory board is limited in assuring this demand is met,” said a statement drafted by members of YPOC and submitted by 29 residents.
Grover was doubtful that delegating subpoena power would even be possible, let alone effective if granted.
“The authority that is being talked about is essentially judicial authority,” Grover said. “The council doesn’t have judicial authority to delegate to a third party, nor does the mayor.”
Grover explained that council has the power to issue administrative subpoenas, but not to enforce them, meaning they would need to go to court.
“You can try and maybe the public collection of persuasion gets you there […] but I’m here to give you, at least from my view, the reality of it,” Grover said. “There’s a major reform needed statewide and nationally to get what the public wants.”
Councilman Westburn Majors echoed the public’s frustration with the proposed bill, uncertain as to what change would truly result from it.
“It means nothing if we don’t make sure the police have to do something with [the advice],” he said.
In addition, council discussed a resolution that would require an annual use-of-force summary from the police bureau, which would be given to the advisory board and City Council.
Use-of-force data is already documented daily, but this would collect and categorize it to communicate a sense of how much force is being used and under what circumstances, Mayor Eric Papenfuse explained.
Papenfuse also commented on the progress of the city’s 8 Can’t Wait Campaign, which is being used as a framework to re-evaluate the policing general order and its use-of-force policies. He said the city has received around 60 public comments. Recurring concerns include the lack of a requirement for officers to intervene when excessive force is used by a fellow officer and worry that verbal warnings aren’t utilized fairly.
“In the end, I think we are going to look at making some revisions to the use-of-force policy,” Papenfuse said.
Councilwoman Ausha Green, chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee, said council will hold more town hall-style meetings on the proposed “Citizen’s Law Enforcement Advisory Committee,” although dates have not yet been announced.
On July 7, City Council will hold another work session immediately followed by a legislative session.
To view Harrisburg City Council’s Tuesday work session, visit their Youtube page. Click here to read the full text of the proposed bill. Read the proposed resolution here. Email email@example.com to comment on the police use of force general order. For more information, visit harrisburgpa.gov.