When a Philadelphia police officer uses force against a civilian, the incident is supposed to be investigated and then reviewed by an oversight board. Yet dozens of reviews didn’t occur in 2020, despite months of unrest over police brutality and outrage over the recent killing of Walter Wallace Jr.
In fact, a memo made public last week shows that the city’s Police Advisory Commission warned Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw in late September that the department’s Use of Force Review Board had not convened since Oct.1, 2019. The board has no plans to meet before the end of the year.
“Convening of this board is the only opportunity for civilian input into the discharge of firearms; the most serious action a police officer can take,” former PAC Director Hans Menos wrote.
In addition to the department’s own Internal Affairs investigation, Philadelphia Police Department directives state that the review board is meant to convene quarterly to “objectively review the appropriateness or reasonableness” of all police-involved shootings and other “unanticipated actions” taken by police. The head of the PAC, four deputy commissioners and a non-voting police union designee sit on the board. The body has the power to recommend discipline or criminal charges.
Last year, before Outlaw took over the department, interim Commissioner Christine Coulter recommended merging the UFRB into the department’s Police Board of Inquiry — an internal tribunal that also reviews shooting incidents. The move would have effectively eliminated civilian oversight of use-of-force incidents. And, earlier this year, Mayor Jim Kenney sought to reduce the budget of the PAC itself.
Advocates responded with pleas to instead invest in the board, which they said was already underfunded and largely toothless. And, following outrage over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, both plans fizzled. Kenney instead pledged to overhaul the PAC and boost its funding, with voters recently approving a ballot measure to create a more powerful — although still relatively undefined — successor dubbed the Citizens Police Oversight Commission.
But Michael Mellon, co-chief of the Police Accountability Unit of the Defenders Association of Philadelphia, said the silent failure of the UFRB to meet for a full year showed a lack of urgency to the department’s commitment to increasing officer accountability. Deeper reforms and a more powerful oversight body were badly needed, Mellon said.
“This is why the new Citizens Police Oversight Commission needs to have the budget and powers to perform these types of reviews themselves in a transparent and public manner so that the public knows such investigations actually occurred and the results of those investigations,” he said.
Police Advisory Commission Executive Director Anthony Erace said in an interview Friday that about two dozen use-of-force reviews were still outstanding. Fifteen of the outstanding reviews were imperiled by the impending retirement of an Internal Affairs investigator assigned to those cases.
“The grace period we gave them was long enough,” Erace said.
Sgt. Eric Gripp, a PPD spokesperson, confirmed the contents of Menos’ memo. He put much of the blame on the coronavirus, which made the meetings logistically challenging.
“There are a number of legally binding documents that have to be signed in-person by the attendees,” Gripp said of the review board hearings. “This year’s COVID restrictions have made these holding meetings difficult, and we are currently working on finding a virtual solution so that we may begin scheduling hearings as soon as possible.”
Other city review boards and commissions began meeting months ago, finding virtual solutions.
In a formal response to the PAC, Francis Healy, a special advisor to Outlaw, also noted that police shootings had declined dramatically over the past decade and following a series of federally guided reforms that began in 2015. The trend had led to the cancellation of the last UFRB meeting last year, Healy said, due to a lack of relevant material.
According to official data, the department logged nine police shootings last year — with zero resulting in fatalities attributed to an officer — compared to 60 total shootings in 2009. To date this year, officers have recorded three fatal shootings by officers, including Wallace’s death.
The PAC memo also raised some concerns about this data.
The database only includes basic information about the shooting incidents — not the UFRB’s independent reviews.
The department also ignored an earlier recommendation from the PAC to include use-of-force incidents involving canines. A May 2019 report from the commission stated that officers had intentionally opened fire on dogs about 90 times between 2013 and 2018, but those incidents were not reflected in the department’s public database.
While he said he appreciated the department’s response, Erace said it was unlikely any of the outstanding incidents would be reviewed until next year.
He said this lapse came at a cost.
While grave offenders might still be identified and criminally charged by the district attorney for particularly egregious use of force, myriad lesser incidents, related police tactics and training, or officers that might be developing a pattern of misconduct had all effectively escaped outside review.
“This is about what the department does on a daily basis. It’s these reviews that make the department better,” he said. “I understand their reasons and explanations, but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable that it hasn’t gone on for a year.”