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State College Establishes Community Police Oversight Board, Creates Department Of Equity and Inclusion

After a year of planning and discussion, State College Borough Council on Monday unanimously approved an ordinance establishing a community oversight board for the police department.

Council also approved the creation of a Department of Equity and Inclusion, which will have a director whose duties include serving as coordinator for the COB.

“This has been a long time coming, and it’s overdue,” Council President Jesse Barlow said.

The nine-member COB, which will be appointed by council, will have auditing, monitoring, and data analysis functions, as well as some investigative ability.

Council committed to creating the COB and the equity and inclusion office — the borough’s sixth administrative department — in a resolution last summer.

Though the idea for a COB in State College has been around since 2016, it was set into motion last summer amid calls for reforms following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and a renewed spotlight on the fatal shooting of Osaze Osagie by borough police in 2019. An ad hoc study committee was appointed in the fall and presented its recommendations to council in December.

Since January, council discussed the COB during eight work sessions and two special meetings for public input

State College’s 2021 budget allocated $165,000 for the COB.

The COB will be able to “receive, process and investigate complaints about the department from members of the community through a civilian complaint process,” according to the ordinance. Complaints alleging officer misconduct would be referred to the police department for internal affairs investigation.

It would not replace the department’s Internal Affairs Section procedures for investigating allegations of officer misconduct, something that is governed by Pennsylvania law for police collective bargaining agreements.

Serving as coordinator, the director of the Department of Equity and Inclusion will observe internal affairs investigations by sitting in on interviews, asking questions “and observing the overall direction of the department’s disciplinary process and procedures.” The coordinator will then make a redacted report to the COB.

The COB could also commission, within limits of existing law, an investigation of closed cases involving use of force resulting in injury or death “when questions persist even after the auditing and monitoring functions have been completed.” Such an investigation could only begin after any litigation has concluded and “will be conducted primarily for the purpose of making policy recommendations.”

The coordinator, COB chair, and two other board members will have quarterly meetings with police department representatives to review redacted reports about incidents involving use of force or complaints against officers.

In its data analysis role, the COB will have access to relevant information on allegations of officer misconduct, including policies, complaints submitted to SCPD, proposed policy changes, and “other information used to track performance measures and assess outcomes related to police practices and community perceptions.”

The ordinance recommends several specific categories of membership that include:

  • involvement in community organizations related to serving people in need
  • understanding of the role played by systemic racism in society
  • knowledge of law enforcement but not employed in a law enforcement position in the last three years
  • background connected to behavioral health or intellectual disabilities
  • understanding of the experiences of children in local schools related to policing
  • a Penn State student.

Members will be required to undergo initial and continuing education training. How specific the initial training should be in the ordinance sparked some final debate on Monday night.

As outlined in the ordinance, initial training will include participation in a Citizens Police Academy, if available, as well as information on a number of issues related to the board’s work, including critical race theory.

No council members raised objections to the concept of critical race theory, scholarship that examines the role of racism in legal institutions and policies, but rather some questioned whether something so specific should be included in the ordinance.

Councilwoman Theresa Lafer made a motion, which she later voted against, to amend the ordinance to simply state training should include “racial equity, policing, constitutional law, labor law or any other training as approved by the board from time to time.”

“I would just like to make the requirements a little less specific so that they have greater opportunity to add what they might need,” Lafer said, noting that the COB’s training needs could change over time.

She later added, “It’s a little bit of micromanaging but there certainly is nothing wrong with the initial thing as opposed to the shortened one that I had.”

The ordinance also calls for training in civil rights law, the Fourth Amendment, use of force laws, implicit bias, cultural competency, and State College Police Department policies and practices.

Barlow said all of it should remain in the ordinance

“They need to know about all of these things to do their jobs,” Barlow said. “I think that laying out these specifics is necessary. I think this is also a way for us to make sure that this is going to be an effective body. I think we are taking a lot of teeth out of this ordinance if we change this.”

Council members Peter Marshall and Janet Engeman agreed a more generalized statement was needed for training, though Engeman ultimately voted against the motion to change it.

Mayor Ron Filippelli, who holds a Ph.D. in history and taught at Penn State for decades, said while the other elements should remain, critical race theory should not be specified as a training because it is a “contested theory” of American history.

“I do not object to critical race theory… It is one of many approaches to the study of race and slavery and racism in America. I agree with almost all of it,” Filippelli said. “But we are writing law here.

“…I’m not saying anything about critical race theory. But I am urging council not to begin and start a precedent that we’re telling people what we think is the right interpretation of American history. I think that’s a mistake and I think most if not all people who are trained in history would agree with me.”

The motion to amend the training section failed 6-1, with Marshall the only member voting in favor.

The ordinance establishing the COB formally goes into effect on Oct. 1. Recruitment for a director of the new Office of Equity and Inclusion will begin immediately.

In addition to coordinating the activities of the COB and working closely with the board chair, the director will collaborate with other departments and oversee diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy and training, recruitment and retention of underrepresented populations, and analysis of proposed legislation and policies for guidance on equity issues.

While supervising administrative support staff funded by the department’s budget as well as the existing community engagement manager position, the director will report to the borough manager, as required by the home rule charter.

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About the Author

Geoff Rushton (StateCollege.com)

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.

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