July 7, 2020
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman:
Discretion and de-escalation are a police officer’s strongest tools
My tenure as Mayor of
Braddock started with a community that was embroiled in mass distrust
between residents and the police force.
Braddock’s population is
approximately 70 percent Black, and 36 percent of residents fall below the
poverty line. The median household income is $22,000.
In addition to being one
of Pennsylvania’s poorest communities, Braddock had some of the highest
crime and violence levels in the town’s history. Gun violence and gun
deaths were a routine reality of our environment.
I moved to Braddock in
2001 and started a program to help local youth earn their GED and find
jobs. I ran for mayor four years later, after two students from my program
were killed by gun violence in our community, because I recognized that
elected office was the place where I could affect the most change.
After being elected, I
worked with our chief of police to develop a community policing plan that
had community buy-in. We weeded out officers who were not a good fit for
our community-service vision, firing officers with a history of complaints
against them and hiring officers who were committed to establishing
community trust and rapport.
As a result of those efforts,
we went more than five-and-a-half years without a homicide. We had few
resident complaints against their police force. We built a better community
by working together and listening to Braddock residents.
We need to build that
kind of trust across Pennsylvania, with systemic change that can be created
through thoughtful legislation. Community partnerships need to be formed
between law enforcement organizations, residents, schools, child-support
services, prosecutors, religious leaders, businesses, and other members of
Discretion is the most
powerful tool a police officer carries on the beat, because an appropriate
level of discretion can short-circuit the use of lethal force. Discretion
and de-escalation measures are pro-community, pro-police, and create more
trust while making everyone safer.
We must acknowledge that
inaction can be an appropriate response for an infraction. Sandra Bland,
Eric Garner and George Floyd are examples in which there was no threat to
public safety or to the safety of the officers. However, those officers
made the decision to use unnecessary and excessive force, which resulted in
the deaths of all three.
An officer can exercise
discretion to gauge situations, to be calm or aggressive, or to use
physical force. Their discretion ultimately determines – as an absolute
last-resort – whether to kill another human being. We must fall on the side
of de-escalation every time, and the prevailing attitude must shift to one
of service, where residents feel like they are partners with the police.
Police need to dress for
the job they want. If they show up as an occupying force in riot gear, it
is far more likely they will get a riot. When police are demilitarized and
approach a situation with service to the community, we will get more humane
I support a measure,
introduced by Representatives Summer Lee and Ed Gainey in 2019, to define
“deadly use of force.” House
Bill 1664 would allow police to use deadly force only in
situations where they or another face imminent threat of death or
serious bodily injury. If we are avoiding deadly use of force for
the purposes of de-escalation, this needs to be clearly defined by law.
Their legislation will do this, and I implore the legislature to pass it
deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard
Brooks, and many others have pulled our immediate need for reform into
the conversation on police reform cannot simply start and end with these
measures, and it must include a reexamination of our entire criminal
justice system. We should be repealing mandatory sentencing and reducing
includes finally legalizing adult-use marijuana).
generations, the issue of police brutality has been just one symptom of a
system that rounds up Black and Brown people and throws away the key.
opinion piece is submitted by Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. Contact Press
Secretary Christina Kauffman at 717-712-3316 or firstname.lastname@example.org.