Can a Delco task force succeed in influencing criminal justice reform?

Delaware County’s district attorney is leading new efforts, highlighting a basic challenge: police departments are beholden to municipal leaders instead.

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Otis Blair

Otis Blair is the Police Commissioner of the City of Chester. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

As protests and demands for police reform have spread beyond large cities, Delaware County is taking its first steps toward modernizing the criminal justice system for its more than 560,000 residents. But the effort highlights the unique challenges facing Pennsylvania’s dozens of counties: a highly decentralized governance structure that, by design, checks top-down policy initiatives.

“One of the blessings and curses of Pennsylvania is our parochialism,” said Jack Stollsteimer, Delaware County’s district attorney and chair of the county’s newly formed Task Force on Criminal Justice Reform.

Last month, the DA’s Office and Delaware County Council announced that they would convene stakeholders from law enforcement, community and civil rights groups, police unions and defense attorneys, Black political groups, and elected officials. The goal is to submit policy recommendations this fall in at least four categories: updated policing practices; modernized prosecutorial strategy; legislative changes; and the county government’s ability to improve equality and justice for residents.

Otis Blair, the police commissioner of Chester, said he anticipates that the task force subcommittees will give law enforcement and community advocates from the city more face time with county officials and prosecutors, to explain how policies applied to Haverford or Media or Upper Darby don’t necessarily work for Chester.

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“Sometimes, one Band-Aid doesn’t cover all wounds,” said Blair, who is Black.

Little influence in ‘day-to-day policing’

Stollsteimer, who is white, campaigned as a progressive reformer in a county that’s grown increasingly diverse since when he was growing up there half a century ago. He is the first Democrat elected district attorney in recent history, part of the blue wave in 2019 that flipped a county government that had been under Republican control since the Civil War.

He sees the District Attorney’s Office as a “neutral observer” in the community, something critics of the criminal justice system would vigorously dispute. But Stollsteimer said that, through the task force, he intends to leverage connections between groups that might not otherwise be in conversation.

“We can actually bring both the community, the courts, and local police departments, and the defense bar,” he said, “and focus on certain issues we think need to be changed.”

That’s where things start to get tricky, however. In Delco, as in the rest of Philadelphia’s suburbs, county officials and district attorneys have very little say over the patchwork of local police departments within their jurisdictions.

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One of the few links between the Delaware County Council and the 41 municipal police departments spread across one city and many boroughs and townships are the district attorneys prosecuting their cases.

Stollsteimer conceded that though his office can set priorities for the kinds of cases it wants to charge, police departments are beholden to local authorities who are largely autonomous from the county leaders.

“In terms of actual day-to-day policing decisions, that’s more of an influence,” he said.

And those 41 departments run the gamut in terms of size, resources and kinds of crimes they respond to.

“Everything’s haphazard. We may police differently in Upper Darby than they do in Chester,” said Michael Chitwood, who spent years as the Upper Darby police superintendent before retiring after the 2019 elections.

Upper Darby’s population of 82,930 is relatively diverse, a little less than half white (not quite 49%), 34% Black, 13% Asian and 5% Latino, according to U.S. Census data. Toward the end of his tenure, Chitwood, who is white, had 134 sworn officers in the department, constituting the largest police force in Delco. By contrast, according to Stollsteimer, Millbourne Borough (2018 population: 1,157) has just a handful of part-time officers.

Chester police vehicles
Chester police vehicles parked near their headquarters in the city. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

It’s hardly a dynamic confined to the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania. In 2018, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette documented massive inequalities in pay, staffing, training and responsiveness among the 109 different police departments within Allegheny County.

Chitwood thinks there are relatively few tools a county has for implementing consistent change across so many distinct departments. He is a big proponent of de-escalation training for officers, but he noted that any requirement for departments to put staff through it would need to happen via state rules. A task force might be able to recommend that kind of programming, but County Council members do not have the authority to mandate it.

Because there are few sticks available, former Upper Darby Mayor Tom Micozzie said, the county is left with just a few “carrots” it can offer.

“The only way that the County of Delaware, in my opinion, can effectuate change,” Micozzie said, “is with money.”

Micozzie, who is white, held elected office in Delco for decades before he was unseated from the mayorship last fall. He said policing in the county’s municipalities is more contingent on state and federal rules than on county-level decisions. The bulk of departmental budgets goes to personnel costs, and he could see potential improvements if the county shifted money from domestic violence and mental health services into local police departments to expand their capacity to handle social issues.

That move is the exact opposite of progressive policy demands behind mounting calls to “defund the police” and reinvest budget dollars in social programs.

Providing money tied specifically to training or equipment is another option for the county as it looks to influence policing practices, but Micozzie said that, in his experience, it has shortcomings.

“I’ve never seen those kinds of programs work effectively,” he said, “because the buy-in is more about money than it is about policy.”

Micozzie said he has never seen an effort like this to establish a countywide criminal justice and policing task force in Delco, and he is skeptical it can be successful without long-term, apolitical intentions. Several years ago, a task force designed to combat gun crime in Delaware County was convened, but that, Micozzie noted, was driven by law enforcement and focused on firearms.

Another law enforcement-driven approach is just underway in Bucks County. The Bucks County Courier Times reports that police chiefs there have begun work on an initiative to standardize a single use-of-force policy for all 39 police departments within that county’s boundaries.

Hope for more than just a task force

There are plenty of examples of elected leaders setting up task forces in the wake of a crisis that don’t accomplish much. In 2018, Billy Penn reported on more than a dozen such efforts created by sitting members of the City Council in Philadelphia, for example, with few, if any, tangible results produced.

But in Delaware County today, some outside the County Council are optimistic about the new efforts toward criminal justice reform.

“We are glad that the county commissioners reached out to work with us towards substantive reforms,” the Delaware County Black Caucus wrote in response to questions.

The organization, whose leadership includes several municipal officials in Delco, wants to see diversity and sensitivity training for police in the county, more diverse recruitment, a ban on chokeholds, a database to track complaints against officers, and community review boards, among other policies.

“We believe that a task force would be very beneficial, especially if they were to oversee or implement some of our recommendations,” the caucus said in its response.

Chester Police Commissioner Blair said of the county’s task force, “It gives us a voice.”

Chester police vehicle
A Chester police vehicle parked near their headquarters in the city. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Blair has spent most of his life in the city he now helps police. Chester has about 34,000 residents, 70% of whom, like him, are Black. Blair said Chester, as Delco’s only city, has unique policing issues that small boroughs and suburban townships do not have to deal with as acutely: criminal groups; a lack of jobs and a lack of activities for young people; a smaller tax base. As a result, he said, decisions by the County Council and District Attorney’s Office have often been out of alignment with the city’s needs.

“Unfortunately,” Blair said of past criminal justice considerations for Chester, “people didn’t ask.”

Since the start of DA Stollsteimer’s tenure, Blair said, there have been better relations between his police department and the county. There are now weekly meetings on homicide cases between his detectives and assistant district attorneys.

“That’s a big plus for me,” he said.

Blair thinks one benefit of convening a wide array of stakeholders is the opportunity to revise criminal justice policy in a way that’s informed by the county’s nuances, rather than its commonalities.

“Now, we can sit at that table,” Blair said.

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