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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Police accountability bill put off again

Posted By on Wed, Jun 22, 2011 at 4:35 PM

City Council today once again postponed a preliminary vote on a much-debated police-accountability bill -- but not until after police union officials drew sharp criticism for warning that the bill would increase crime by taking officers off city streets.

Born out of the controversial arrest of Jordan Miles in January 2010, the legislation would, among other things, require the police department to release information about citizen complaints against officers. It would also require officers to complete written reports each time they exercise a use of force or conduct "stop and frisks."

"We as a union do not accept this bill as something we can live with," Dan O'Hara, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, told council during public comment this morning. "You're going to handcuff [officers] ... There's going to be a lot more guns out there."

FOP Vice President Chuck Hanlon added that the legislation introduced by City Councilor Ricky Burgess was a "desperate bill" that would require "useless, redundant paperwork."

While he acknowledged that the FOP agrees with "90 percent" of the seven-page legislation, O'Hara charged that some of the reporting requirements would significantly burden officers with excessive paperwork. "Do you want police officers or clerks?" he asked. "When you create rules that handcuff us, you'll live with the consequences."

Community members who spoke after were quick to call foul on O'Hara's comments.

"For the FOP to practically threaten to stop doing their jobs ... is tragic," said Kenneth Houston, community liaison for the Black Political Empowerment Project. "What's being asked for is not unreasonable."

"I was disturbed by the FOP [official] that came up and made comments to the council," added Rev. James Earl Garmon Sr. "I would hope [council] would not feel threatened."

City councilors also took offense.

"I don't at all appreciate what Dan O'Hara from the FOP said to the public," said City Councilor Patrick Dowd.

Although a preliminary vote on the bill had already been postponed from last week, City Council decided to table the legislation for another four weeks once it became clear that city attorneys, needed more time to weigh the bill's legality, and other implications.

"Generally speaking," said city Solicitor Daniel Regan, "there are legal concerns and there are practical concerns that need to be discussed."

Chief among the concerns, Regan added, was that some provisions "may have an impact on [state] accreditation of the bureau." Regan said the Pennsylvania Law Enforcement Accreditation, which accredits police departments, expects policy decisions "to come directly from the police [chief]."

Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson also echoed O'Hara's contention that some requirements in the bill would unnecessarily burden officers. For example, he said, making officers complete a written report each time they conduct a pat down would likely cause officers to stop the practice. "It would be burdensome to officers to mandate that they have to complete a report" for stop and frisks, Donaldson told council.

While postponing the vote was largely due to the need for further discussion, an emotional Dowd offered another reason: the ongoing high-profile trial of Richard Poplawski, accused of killing three police officers in 2009.

Choking up as he spoke, Dowd said it was "completely inappropriate that we are discussing this bill today" in light of the trial taking place in the courthouse across the street. "None of us should be having this conversation today."

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