At least three counties in Pennsylvania do not screen new parole officers against a statewide database of police misconduct or upload recent records of misconduct, further undermining a law designed to prevent job-hopping by bad cops, Spotlight PA has learned.
The district courts in Cameron, Carbon and Elk counties have denied use of the database based on instructions received from the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts.
A spokesman for that agency said he was told by an attorney for the city’s Police Officer Education and Training Commission, part of the Pennsylvania State Police Department tasked with implementing the program, that parole officers’ participation was voluntary.
“This information has been made available to all presidential judges,” Stacey Witalec, the AOPC’s communications director, wrote in an email.
In 2020, Pennsylvania lawmakers passed Law 57 in response to widespread protests against police brutality. Among other things, the law requires the state to maintain records of law enforcement officers who have been disciplined or fired for specific offenses and requires agencies hiring new employees to conduct advance checks against this database.
But since its inception, the database – once heralded as a national model – has been riddled with loopholes, raising serious questions about its ability to flag potentially problematic officers. There is no enforcement mechanism for those who do not comply, only certain categories of misconduct are followed up and records are only uploaded to the database when an officer quits his job – not when an officer receives a warning or suspension and on stays busy.
Additionally, records prior to the implementation of the database are not included, and the database only contains information about an officer if his misconduct occurred during his employment in Pennsylvania.
This restriction was central to Tioga County’s hiring in July 2022 of the police officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. A Spotlight PA investigation found that the law would not have labeled this officer at the time of his hiring, despite erroneous claims by Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro, who was Attorney General at the time and was supporting Act 57.
The parole officers’ latest interpretation appears to be at odds with the law, and a state police spokesman has given conflicting accounts of their status.
The law defines law enforcement officers as “peace officers,” referencing the state’s criminal code for that definition, which describes them as “any person who, by virtue of his office or public employment, has a legal duty to maintain public order or to make arrests for a criminal offense, regardless whether this duty extends to all offenses or is limited to specific offences.”
Probation officers work under the supervision of county courts and their salaries are paid by the counties. The Pennsylvania Judiciary Code states that a parole officer is “declared a peace officer” and has powers, including the ability to arrest someone.
State police spokesman Myles Snyder confirmed that county probation officers are “expressly given the powers of a ‘peace officer,'” but did not directly state that they are subject to the Misconduct Act, nor did he confirm or deny the Education Commission’s advice dishes.
“A determination as to whether [probation officers] Participation in Act 57 is a matter for your employment agency,” he wrote.
Several county and state elected officials said they were skeptical of the courts’ decision and concerned that problem law enforcement officials could slip through the cracks.
“Not a single police department or police chief in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania would mistakenly hire a law enforcement officer with a history of egregious misconduct,” Carbon County Commissioner Chris Lukasevich said during a public meeting in January. “We need to take these measures to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
State Assemblyman Chris Rabb (D., Philadelphia), whose legislation was included in Law 57, said the law was “watered down” during negotiations. He told Spotlight PA in an email that the required database checks apply to probation officers and that failure to comply “brazenly contradicts clear legal requirements.”
Carbon County Court of Common Pleas President Judge Roger Nanovic cited what he sees as an ambiguity in the law as one of the reasons he found probation officers are not subject to it. During a public meeting in December, he called the law “a very poorly drafted law.”
LeeAnn Covac, Circuit Clerk of the Court of Common Pleas for Elk and Cameron Counties, provided a similar reasoning as Elk County Chief Clerk Pat Straub, according to emails from Spotlight PA. Straub had questioned the decision, concerned that failure to comply could leave the county liable.
Lukasevich, the Carbon County commissioner, is objecting to his district court’s decision to opt out. He told Spotlight PA the reasoning is not supported by any legal rulings and contradicts the interpretation of the county’s former and current attorneys.
“I know that it is mentioned … that the law is not perfect,” Lukasevich said during a meeting of the commissioners in January. “Are imperfect laws violated? And I’ll always argue that compliance doesn’t matter simply because it’s the law, but because we have a moral responsibility to do the right thing.”
Spotlight PA’s Danielle Ohl contributed coverage.
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This story first appeared in The Investigator, a weekly newsletter from Spotlight PA featuring the best investigative and accountable journalism from across Pennsylvania.
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