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Opinion: Bill would mandate independent probe in fatal police shootings

A southeastern Pennsylvanian legislator is citing the state police killing in Monroe County in December 2020 as one of the reasons why he believes that independent investigations of police-related shootings should be mandatory.

State Sen. Art Haywood, D-Montgomery-Philadelphia, along with 10 co-sponsors, introduced the bill, which has been assigned to the Senate Law and Justice Committee.

Regrettably, I do not hold out much hope that the bill, as so many others which die a slow death in committee, will ever see the light of day. I would be amazed if it even comes to a committee or full House vote. The main reason is that it is opposed by the state police and by many local police departments.

In citing the state police shooting and killing of Christian Hall in Monroe County, along with several other police-related killings in Pennsylvania, Haywood believes that it is time to make our criminal justice system truly impartial. Haywood maintains that because of these killings and the controversy that they have spawned, the public questions police investigations of their own officers. These deaths, Haywood said, have shown that in some cases “there is the appearance of conflicts of interest in the investigation that can lead the public to believe that justice is not being dispensed fairly.”

Asserting that public trust in law enforcement is fundamental and a cornerstone of our criminal justice system, Haywood said, “Our criminal justice system is meant to be impartial.”

There have been previous efforts to shift the investigation from police and into independent hands, but none of these proposals or legislation has been successful.

For example, the Pennsylvania State Law Enforcement Citizen Advisory Commission called for such a change six years ago after state police shot a man in Beaver County. The Beaver district attorney later ruled that the trooper’s actions in the shooting were justified based on the state police investigation.

Gov. Tom Wolf created the advisory panel after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020 and authorized the group to review state-police-conducted investigations after all criminal and civil cases are completed. Because it is “advisory,” its powers are limited, some have even contended as “a sham.”

Haywood said his bill would require that district attorneys, not the police department where the killing happened, conduct investigations into any police involved killing. “This ensures the police department being investigated for deadly force will not conduct the criminal investigation of its own officers.”

In the Monroe case, Hall, an adopted 19-year-old Chinese American who was suffering from depression and who experienced a mental health emergency, was shot and killed by Pennsylvania State Police about 18 months ago.

Although Hall was armed, and police said they feared for their lives, subsequent video evidence showed that Hall was shot and killed while his hands were in the air. He was carrying a gun, but when he was shot, he was not threatening police. The gun was in an outstretched hand to his side. The pellet gun he was carrying was made to look like a semi-automatic pistol, but the state police did not know this until the incident came to its untimely and violent end.

Hall, who lived in Stroudsburg with his multiethnic parents, Fe and Gareth Hall, stopped his car on a Route 33/Interstate 80 overpass in Hamilton Township about 6 miles northwest of Stroudsburg.

State police in their official report said that Hall pointed the weapon at police, but his parents said this statement is inaccurate and that he was actually trying to surrender when he was shot and killed. The video appears to agree with this version. Through their attorney, the Halls have called for an independent investigation into the circumstances leading up to their son’s death.

At first, it appeared as if the case was going to be concluded in March 2021 with a ruling by the Monroe County District Attorney’s office as a justified shooting, but then several months later a video from the police’s body camera was released which tells a different story.

State troopers from outside the Stroudsburg barracks were called to investigate the shooting and turned their findings over to Monroe District Attorney E. David Christine Jr., who made the ruling that the shooting was justified given the circumstances of the facts determined in the investigation. Hall’s parents asked Christine to refer the case to the office of Attorney General Josh Shapiro, but Christine declined. The parents have filed a federal civil suit against the state police, the DA’s office and the County of Monroe.

The other cases cited in Haywood’s bill include Ricardo Munoz in Lancaster and Antwom Rose II near Pittsburgh, both killed by local police officers during incidents in their respective communities.

In cases such as the Hall shooting and killing and the other two, which are ultimately found to be lawful, the public often finds the decisions to be suspect, and when this happens it loses trust and respect for the police.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.