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Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, left, listens as District Attorney Seth Williams speaks during a news conference, Thursday, Feb. 5, 2015, in Philadelphia. Two Philadelphia police officers face brutality charges after prosecutors say they knocked a man off a scooter and beat him so severely another officer thought the bloodied man had been shot. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, left, listens as District Attorney Seth Williams speaks during a news conference, Thursday, Feb. 5, 2015, in Philadelphia. Two Philadelphia police officers face brutality charges after prosecutors say they knocked a man off a scooter and beat him so severely another officer thought the bloodied man had been shot. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

RAMSEY AND THE POLICING GUIDELINES

It might be tempting to consider Charles Ramsey’s role as co-chairman of a presidential task force on policing ironic, given that the police force over which he presides has its own long and checkered past of problems.

Those problems range from individual causes – badly (and criminally) behaving police officers – to larger and lingering questions about policies and procedures in the department, especially around training and use of force.

But we think that Ramsey is the natural authority for leading this large-scale look at policing across the country. Since being appointed in 2008, he has been struggling to make changes in the city’s police department, and knows how ingrained police cultures can be.

Also, we are betting that the report gives him added incentive to implement some of the recommendations in his own department. And Philadelphia needs those changes.

President Obama appointed the task force after fatal police shootings of unarmed men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York – events that ignited questions about racism, police tactics and authority. Those same questions have played out again and again in other cities, raising new questions about police tactics everywhere.

One of the key points the report makes is its focus on 21st-century policing. The upheavals and crises that policing – and its impact – has seen around the country are in many ways the signs of an outdated institution resisting change.

Our world is dramatically different than it was even 20 years ago, and not just because of technology, but because of new societal strains and stresses as populations and economies shift. As the report makes clear over 115 pages and 63 recommendations, policing requires changes both in mind-sets as well as individual policies.

Some of these recommended changes are big and some are small. Take, for example, one of the points in the report: that law-enforcement departments must stop requiring officers to issue “quotas” of tickets, citations and arrests, especially when moves like that are part of generating revenue. The drive for revenue muddies the concept of law enforcement and undermines community trust.

Other changes are more complex, such as shifting the mind-set from the police as militarized warriors to that of community guardians.

The report also calls for more transparency, and independent external investigations for fatal shootings and deaths involving police. It underscores the need for better data collection on instances of police shootings across the country, which right now is spotty at best. The recommendations also favor more civilian involvement and oversight.

This report is a comprehensive blueprint for bringing policing into the 21st century, and it will require a large national push from federal law-enforcement agencies as well as ground-level implementation at the local level.

For Philadelphia, the big question is how much Ramsey can get done; he could, after all, be gone when the city elects a new mayor next year. And he will also be busy reviewing a Department of Justice report on use of force in the Philadelphia department, which Ramsey requested. That report is due out on Friday.

If nothing else, the city’s mayoral candidates should study the task-force report and use it to help define their own approach to law enforcement in the city, and help guide the selection for who replaces Ramsey when that time comes.

– Philadelphia Daily News

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WILL LAX OIL TRAIN SAFETY INFLICT A DISASTER ON PENNSYLVANIA?

Looking at so many spectacular crude oil train explosions, including recent conflagrations in West Virginia and Illinois, Pennsylvanians have good reason to wonder when disaster will strike here.

And we do mean “when” – not “if.”

Because there are so many oil trains heading from North Dakota’s booming oil fields to Philadelphia-area refineries – some 60 to 70 a week – each carrying such easily combustible cargo, in tank cars that routinely rupture upon derailment, a catastrophe somewhere in the state is almost inevitable.

A federal study predicts that the nation will see an average of 10 fuel tanker derailments a year over the next 20 years, causing $4.5 billion in damage.

Pennsylvania has already seen four non-catastrophic oil train derailments, including one that left tank cars teetering on a Philadelphia bridge. Only dumb luck kept oil from gushing into the Schuylkill River.

The long-term way to improve oil transport safety is to get the oil out of rail cars and into a pipeline.

According to one estimate, nearly one in three Pennsylvanians – some 3.9 million – live within the federally- recommended evacuation zones along the oil trains’ routes across the commonwealth. (Another estimate finds “only” 1.5 million residents are at risk of evacuation.)

Oil trains routinely run through both Harrisburg and the West Shore. If disaster struck in the wrong place, much of the city and the entire Capitol complex would have to be evacuated.

Because railroad regulation is a federal responsibility, there’s not much local governments at the front lines of potential disaster can do. Their emergency teams train as best they can to respond and contain the damage. (Some oil train fires are so big, they have to burn themselves out.)

At the state level, there’s not a lot Pennsylvania can do either. Gov. Tom Wolf would like to have more railroad inspectors (there are only six for 5,000 miles of track), and has asked President Obama for federal help on that score.

Wolf also wants the federal government to work faster on other ways of reducing the threat posed by booming oil train traffic.

One quick way to cut the risk is telling oil shippers to remove the most flammable hydrocarbons from the highly combustible crude oil coming by rail from North Dakota. The state of North Dakota imposed a new standard on that score (known as the “vapor pressure” of the crude oil) but the rule could be stronger. The oil on the train that exploded and killed 47 people in Quebec in 2013 would have met the new standard.

Wolf also wants the federal government to review speed limits on tanker trains and expedite its work on new safety standards for oil tankers, possibly including new braking systems.

In September, the feds proposed a two-year transition that would require all oil to be carried in stronger tank cars. However, “stronger” may not be strong enough. Some recent disasters, including the latest in Illinois, involved tank cars built to the more stringent standard voluntarily adopted by the rail industry.

The long-term way to improve oil transport safety is to get the oil out of rail cars and into a pipeline. In the meantime, without strong federal preventive measures, Pennsylvanians are left to rely on good luck to avoid disaster.

– PennLive.com

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STANDOFF OVER PENSION FUNDING?

Everyone agrees that Pennsylvania has a funding problem with its two biggest public pension systems, the Public School Employees’ Retirement System and the State Employees’ Retirement System. They are in debt to the tune of about $50 billion total.

The problems began back in 2001. With the stock market riding high and pension funds rolling in profits, Gov. Tom Ridge and members of the state Legislature increased pension benefits for teachers and state employees by 25 percent. Legislators also gave themselves a 50 percent bump in their pension benefits.

Then, when the state had some difficulties with its budgets several years later, legislators declined to make the state’s annual contributions to the pension plans. With state employees continuing to make their contributions, the pension funds remained profitable until the stock market began tanking in 2007. The pension funds soon turned from black to red, where they’ve remained ever since.

Concerned that taxpayers could be saddled with huge tax increases to make up the deficits, Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Tom Wolf have come up with proposals to tackle the problem.

And to absolutely no one’s surprise, the plans differ greatly.

Republican lawmakers, including local state senators Pat Stefano of Bullksin Township and Camera Bartolotta of Monongahela, want to move new state and school employee hires into a 401(k)-style pension plan, providing up to a 5 percent employer match. They point out that many private businesses have had to take similar action, noting that few companies offer defined pension payments nowadays. They add that switching to 401(k)-style pension plans would alleviate any long-term financial problems for taxpayers.

Democrats, however, contend that such a plan would do nothing to solve the immediate problem of pension deficits. Most of the employees involved with the pension funds are union workers with legal contracts that can’t be broken. They note that the new pension plans wouldn’t take effect for at least 20 to 30 or even 40 years when the new hires retire. In the meantime, without contributions from new hires, the current pension would go into even further debt, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill for the financial cleanup.

While Wolf didn’t propose any plans to switch new workers to 401(k)-style pension funds as Republicans would have liked, he did propose a number of reforms which some GOP lawmakers praised, including firing private money managers to reduce excessive fees and overreliance on high- risk investment strategies and taking out a $3 billion bond to help reduce the debt and alleviate possible tax hikes for commonwealth residents.

“The governor has recognized there is a pension problem, That’s good, that’s new, and I think he got one or two things right,” said Rep. John McGinnis (R-Blair), who holds a Ph.D. in finance from Penn State and was a member of the 2014 Blue Ribbon Panel on Pension Funding.

However, he noted that the pension funds need more of a major overhaul rather than the tuneup being proposed by Wolf.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Jake Corman, the leader of the Republicans, who control that chamber, contends that he won’t consider any of Wolf’s spending proposals until some type of deal is done on pension reform.

So, who will win this game of chicken? Will Wolf concede and give in to the Republicans’ call for a switch to 401(k) plans and perhaps get some concessions on his grand plan to reduce property taxes in exchange for increases in the sales and income taxes?

Or will Wolf stand firm and perhaps risk a budget deadlock, which would grind state government to a halt?

Whatever happens, the next several months should be one of the most interesting periods in the history of the state Legislature.

Stay tuned.

– The (Uniontown) Herald-Standard

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SAVING THE MIDDLE CLASS

Technology and automation has eliminated many good paying jobs over the last decade. Computers can handle many of the repetitive tasks that were formally done by people.

For the middle class to continue, it’s imperative for people to develop specific skills to do jobs that can’t be handled by technology.

Targeting stagnant wages in an otherwise improving economy, President Barack Obama has called on employers, educational institutions and local governments to develop a home grown high technology workforce that could help drive up higher-income employment.

The effort aims not only to attack a stubborn downside of the current economic recovery, but to fill a gaping demand for high-tech workers in the United States.

“We’ve got to keep positioning ourselves for a constantly changing global economy,” Obama said in announcing his “TechHire” initiative at a gathering of the National League of Cities. “If we’re not producing enough tech workers, over time that’s going to threaten our leadership in global innovation, which is the bread and butter of the 21st century economy.”

Obama has obtained commitments from more than 300 employers as well as local governments in 21 regions of the country to train and hire low-skilled workers for jobs in software development, network administration and cybersecurity.

Under the program, the Obama administration will provide $100 million in competitive grants to joint initiatives by employers, training institutions and local governments that target workers who don’t have easy access to training. The money comes from fees companies pay to the government to hire higher-skilled foreign workers under the H-1B visa program.

The initiative is designed to prepare U.S. workers for a growing number of technology jobs. According to the White House, of the 5 million jobs available today, more than half a million are in those fields.

Obama’s attention to technology comes as the unemployment rate is dropping but wages remain flat. The unemployment rate in February dropped to 5.5 percent but average hourly earnings rose just 3 cents from January to $24.78. Raising wages has become one of the biggest challenges of the current economic recovery.

The administration’s plan is for universities and community colleges to provide training. It is also relying on high-tech educational academies, some of which have entered arrangements with cities to train workers in a matter of months and help place them in jobs.

The success of the program will be measured. The training academies undergo independent studies to confirm the rate of job placements.

The proposal makes sense. There are many Americans who are continually being displaced by efficiencies in technology. Those being displaced as well as those getting ready to enter the workforce need to know what types of jobs will provide them a sound future.

– (Somerset) Daily American

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CRADLE OF CITIZENSHIP: THE UNITED STATES IS RIGHT TO CURB BIRTH TOURISM

Medical tourism is big business worldwide; it’s estimated that 1 to 2 million people travel abroad for services ranging from cancer treatment to tummy tucks. But a pregnant woman who comes to the United States to give birth gets something even more valuable than medical care: U.S. citizenship for her baby.

That’s why women from China and other countries are paying companies between $40,000 and $60,000 to help them give birth in the U.S. – and why federal agents last week raided more than 30 California sites believed to be connected to the dubious scheme. “Birth tourism” is not illegal, per se, but lying on a visa application is. Even if the fraud and conspiracy alleged in search warrants cannot be proven, U.S. citizenship should not be extended to babies born to tourists.

The United States and Canada are among a dwindling number of countries that bestow citizenship on the principle of jus soli, “right of the soil” in Latin. This means, if you’re born on American soil, you’re an American, no matter how temporary the stay. You can grow up in another country, then return to the U.S. as an adult and receive government benefits or sponsor foreigners for citizenship.

Because this right is articulated in the 14th Amendment, change can occur only through a constitutional amendment. Regardless, a few lawmakers have introduced bills that would require at least one parent to be an American citizen or national, or a lawful permanent resident, but messily entwined in the immigration debate, the measures have failed. The advent of the birth-tourism industry, however, shows change is needed.

No charges were filed last week, but agents collected evidence that may lead to prosecution. It’s tough to go after pregnant women and new mothers, but as for the companies that exploit them, unleash the hounds. U.S. citizenship is too precious to be distributed to people whose sole connection to the country is time spent in a crib.

– Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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